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ANALYSIS - Pakistan’s mosques, media and intolerance
Sat Jun 5, 2010 4:01pm IST
By Zeeshan Haider
(Reuters) — Pakistan has been fighting Islamist militants for years, but tough measures are needed to overturn a system breeding religious intolerance after the long failure of authorities to confront mullahs and hardline groups.
Analysts say the notion of religious mistrust is deeply entrenched in the predominatly Muslim country – even in the school system – and it is now up to leaders to mobilise public.
Last week’s massacre in the city of Lahore of more than 80 Ahmadis - a minority religious sect deemed non-Muslim and heretical by the constitution - has generated a heated debate in Pakistan, a U.S. ally, on how to tackle the issue.
In a sign of how hatred is propagated, The News newspaper said one of the two surviving gunmen caught by security forces said he had been persuaded that Ahmadis were “blaspheming” Islam.
Identified as Abdullah, he told investigators that his mentors had him believe that Ahmadis were drawing caricatures of Prophet Mohammad during a recent online contest and “so their bloodshed was a great service to Islam”, the newspaper said.
That raised alarm bells in a country combatting militancy.
“The nagging feeling that the government has already lost the battle against extremism has now acquired the force of conviction,” Zafar Hilaly, a former ambassador, wrote in The News last week.
After joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Pakistan mounted a crackdown on militancy, outlawing several groups, arresting hundreds of suspects and warning hardline mullahs against delivering hate speeches and distributing hate literature.
The government also vowed to reform tens of thousands of Islamic seminaries, known as madrassas, many of which are considered as breeding grounds for militancy.
Almost none of these measures, however, has been implemented.
Most outlawed groups have re-emerged under new names. Radical clerics still deliver fiery speeches against sects.
The U.S. Embassy acknowledged the difficulties, given the importance placed on Pakistan helping Washington battle al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
“We recognise this is a problem,” an embassy official said, adding that the embassy encouraged Pakistanis to take part in exchange programmes to see a multi-faith United States.
Analysts say Pakistani leaders dating back to the 1970s, however popular, took no action to counter radicals.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political and security analyst said governments have lacked the stomach to implement reforms, particularly in school curricula.
“In textbooks used in government schools, Pakistan is equated with Muslims…They teach Pakistan is a country only for Muslims. They don’t teach that non-Muslims also live here,” he said.
Journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid described school programmes as “the most sensitive issue. But it is an issue in which any attempt to change the curriculum would have a whole host of fundamentalist groups oppose you.”
In 1974, Pakistan’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, bowed to Islamic groups and won approval of a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims.
He also switched the weekly day off from Sunday to Friday.
But much of the upsurge in militancy occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s during the “Islamisation drive” by late military leader General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-baked Afghan jihad or holy war against the Soviet invasion which saw a rapid growth of radical groups and madrasas.
Haq introduced several laws, such as the notorious blasphemy law, which are deemed discriminatory against non-Muslim minorities and fuelled tensions between different Muslim sects.
Subsequent governments did nothing to reverse the laws.
Military dictators, who ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence, have also used militant groups to further policy objectives in Afghanistan and India and marginalise liberals.
“In earlier years, in order to pursue its foreign policy using the instrument of jihad, the state actively sought to create a religiously charged citizenry,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and analyst.
“But, now that the Pakistani military and political establishments have become a victim of extremism, they are foundering in confusion.”
Former President Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, though he espoused a modern and liberal version of Islam, repeatedly failed to get the laws reviewed while in office from 1999-2008.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a pro-West politician and a vocal opponent of the militants, was killed in December 2007 in a suicide attack blamed on militants linked to al Qaeda.
Civilian leaders are made even more cautious now in tackling radical groups by the tremendous fear of militants who have unleashed bomb and suicide attacks across the country.
“Religious intolerance is getting worse in Pakistan because the political leadership lacks the will to fight this,” said analyst Rizvi. “They don’t want to face the wrath of mullahs.”
(Additional reporting and editing by Chris Allbritton and by Ron Popeski)