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The tolerant side of Pakistan

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    The tolerant side of Pakistan

    By Pamela Constable
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Saturday, October 20, 2001; Page A01


    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 19 -- There were no bellicose exhortations from the loudspeaker of the al-Shuhada Mosque today, no thundering choruses of "Holy War!" from the worshipers inside. Instead, there was the grave murmur of a cleric urging his flock to "trust in God and learn from history," and the collective rustle of hundreds of men and boys kneeling on the grass outside to pray.

    Several miles away, at a shrine to the Sufi mystic known as Bari Imam, Muslim families in their Friday best made a festive pilgrimage to the tomb of the 10th-century ascetic. They brought goats on halters and little girls in frilly dresses to be blessed, then stopped outside to chat and munch sweets and buy bangle bracelets from sidewalk stalls.

    To the vast majority of people in this Muslim nation of 145 million, Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, not war and hatred. It requires that women dress modestly, but not make themselves invisible. Its mosques are solemn and silent, but its shrines are relaxed and colorful. Its liturgy says Islam should be spread by persuasion, not by force, and that jihad, or holy war, is a personal effort to perfect Islam, not an armed crusade against other religions.

    Every Friday for the past month, radical Islamic groups have held angry demonstrations outside mosques in major Pakistani cities. Goaded by shouting clerics to defend the Taliban Islamic movement in Afghanistan against U.S. attacks, men have poured out of their weekly prayer services to burn effigies, shout slogans and sometimes attack buildings.

    But Muslim historians, scholars and worshipers at a variety of other mosques and shrines insist that this radical minority does not accurately reflect the character, ideology or behavior of most Pakistani Muslims. While many Pakistanis are upset and angry about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, they are also horrified by violence in the name of religion and offended at Western media depictions of Pakistan as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

    "Islam is a faith of peace and discipline. It teaches us to live together as brothers with all people," said Mohammed Shahid, 48, a high school teacher who had just finished praying at al-Shuhada today. "We are against all kinds of terrorism, by any country. It is not right what America is doing in Afghanistan, but it is totally wrong to think that Muslims want to bother anyone. To us, the only superpower is Allah."

    Anis Ahmad, a dean at the International Islamic University here, said that while most Pakistanis are religious conservatives, 80 percent have a "mystical understanding of Islam, rather than a legalistic one," meaning they believe Islamic practices -- such as men wearing a beard or women covering with a veil -- should be left up to the individual, not imposed by law.

    Centuries ago, many Muslims in this region were converted by Sufi saints like Bari Imam -- mystics and poets who preached a pacifist, harmonious way of life. In 1947, Pakistan was established as both a Muslim state and a parliamentary democracy; its founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was an ardent opponent of theocracy.

    Since then, no religious political party has ever won a major election, and periodic efforts to introduce -- the harsh Islamic codes imposed on all Muslims in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan -- have failed.

    "Pakistan has always been a peaceful country, with a flexible approach to religion. The people are not extremist," Ahmad said. "Most Pakistani ladies are modest; they cover their bodies, but they do not wear the Taliban burqa [a head-to-toe veil]. They may go to a Sufi shrine or go to a poetry recital and come out talking about Michael Jackson."

    In recent years, Pakistan has been plagued by increasing religious violence, partly because of rivalry between armed Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim extremists, and partly because of the militant Islamic ideology introduced in the early 1980s by clerics from the radical Deoband school and championed by Pakistan's dictator at the time, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Deobandi mosques and schools supplied fighters to the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan and later helped form the Taliban.

    But the government of President Pervez Musharraf, a moderate Muslim and army general, is trying to curb the influence of extremist groups, which he insists represent less than 15 percent of the populace. Last month Musharraf provoked angry religious protests by cutting Pakistan's ties to the Taliban and allying with the Western anti-terrorist campaign, and he has since cracked down on anti-American demonstrations.

    "I'm glad we finally have a head of state who is taking this stand. These radical groups brainwash children to hate, and they mix religion with politics," said Sameena Pirzada, who heads a Muslim women's volunteer group. "People are afraid to stand up to them because they use the name of religion, but I think they will eventually die their own death. They want to revolutionize us all, but most Pakistanis just want to live our lives and practice the Islam our parents taught us."

    Pakistan's silent Muslim majority, however, is far from monolithic. Although most Pakistanis agree on a vision of Islam that is nonviolent and noncoercive, there are significant differences between the views and practices of many urban, Westernized Muslims and those of rural and traditional backgrounds.

    In cities such as Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, a small elite of educated middle-class Muslims behave much like their Western counterparts. They attend mosques and arrange their children's marriages, but they also serve alcohol at private parties and watch Hollywood or Indian movies. Men wear business suits, and women hold jobs.

    But in villages, towns and poorer urban areas, most Muslims are deeply conservative. Men wear traditional flowing robes and stop all activity five times a day to pray. Women cover their heads, do not mix with men who are not their relatives and rarely appear in public except to shop. Drinking alcohol and watching Western films is subject to extreme disapproval, and domestic violence against wives and daughters who are disobedient or suspected of promiscuity is commonplace.

    As Pakistan moves slowly into the modern world of computers, travel and global communication, these differences are becoming sharper.

    "We are not against the Western way of life, but we do not want any interference in ours," said Ghulam Rabbani Qadri, the leader of a mainstream mosque in Islamabad. "Islam does not teach hatred, it teaches love, but it is the love of a mother and child, of a husband and wife, not this free love and sex of the American and British kind. We do not want to destroy America, we only want to save and defend our own culture."

    And while most Pakistani Muslims would not wish to see a rigid, Taliban-style Islamic system imposed on their country, let alone engage in an armed struggle against the West, a sizable number express some admiration for the Taliban because they consider its members to be purer Muslims, striving to create a society free of modern vices.

    "To me, Islam is a quiet religion where everyone can be independent. It is never a threat to anyone," said Javed Iqbal, a pharmacist who wears a coat and tie but locks his shop and unrolls his prayer rug on the floor five times a day. "The Muslims in Afghanistan are better believers than we are; their women are better protected. We do not want terrorism of any kind, but we do want an Islam that is nearer to theirs."

    While conservative Muslims fear the spread of decadent Western influence in Pakistani society, liberals express equal concern that unless the radical Islamic minority is brought under control, the country could slip back toward the turmoil of the Zia era. The ongoing U.S. military attack against Afghanistan, they note, has heightened public sympathy for the Taliban as a defender of Islam.

    "There is a clash of Islamic civilizations within our society," said Atizaz Ahsan, a lawyer and historian in Lahore. "The Sufi strain is still dominant, but the militant strain has proliferated immensely in recent years." Pakistan has staked its future on an alliance with the West, he said, but many Pakistanis mistrust America. If the bombing continues and more Muslim civilians are killed, he added, "these events could forge a dangerous alliance between those who merely mistrust the West and those who hate it."


    © 2001 The Washington Post Company


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    #2
    Very nice read

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    • “na maiN momin vich masiitaaN, na maiN muusaa, na fir'aun!”
    Ain't new ta this....HOMEINVASION('93)

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