In response to the murders of 12 journalists in Paris last week, a group of leading Muslim political and academic leaders including Farahnaz Ispahani, former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a Director here at Americans for Democracy & Justice in Pakistan, signed a statement published in The New York Times on Sunday.
Last week’s protests in response to the amateur internet video intended to defame the Prophet Muhammad dominated headlines about Pakistan and served as an unfortunate and misleading introduction to Islam for too many in the West. While outrage against the offensive video clip was real – just as films like The Last Temptation of Christ and works of art like “Piss Christ” inspired outrage in the US – the violence that broke out represented not the majority of devout Muslims, but the craven opportunism of radical political groups who seized on the film as a convenient tool for manufacturing rage and amplifying their political message far beyond their actual support among the people. As noted by Trudy Rubin in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer,
Violent protests against critiques of Islam have no roots in the Muslim religion. As the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said last week, the Web video “would never harm the noble Prophet in any way, nor the religion of Islam.” He denounced the destruction of embassies and public buildings as un-Islamic.
While cynical political leaders were exploiting religion to hijack media headlines, however, a little noticed event in Washington, DC presented a much different representation of Islam – one that would be far more familiar to the billions of Muslims across the world who registered their offense through reasoned outreach and quiet prayer, and serves as a much more informative introduction to the Islamic tradition prevalent in countries like Pakistan. Over the weekend, the Smithsonian Institution hosted Sufism at the Smithsonian: Searching fro the Divine through the Arts, a two-day symposium on Sufism and Sufi-inspired arts.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, spoke at the event on Saturday, explaining that,
Over the past decade, the emergence of ideological terrorism and its narrative of hate has cast a long and dark shadow on the picture of Islam as it has been practiced for centuries, as it is still practiced today. This tiny percentage has virtually hijacked the religion of Islam and distorted it as a religion of exclusivity and violence. In fact, allow me to say, that those who dominate international media discourse have strayed far from the teachings of Sufi masters who were the votaries of love, from the “maktab i ishq” or school of love; aligning themselves with an increasingly apocalyptic creed that promotes exclusion of all those who disagree with their narrow interpretation of faith.
Let there be no mistake that the essence of Islam advocates peace above all else.
Pakistani analyst Najam Sethi contends that last week’s violent protests were not a spontaneous and popular uprising, but a media event carefully orchestrated by radical political groups who seek to overshadow “the point of view of an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who are tolerant and moderate and want to reflect such values to the global village with which they wish to trade and integrate, for whom jobs, education and upward mobility are worthy ambitions.” That point of view was eloquently stated by Ambassador Rehman on Saturday night. It’s too bad more media wasn’t there to cover it.
Video of Ambassador Rehman’s full remarks is below:
Pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world remind us that Islam and democracy are not only compatible, but, as we are increasingly seeing, Muslims across the world yearn for freedom and self-determination. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes in today’s New York Times that “the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism,” phenomena brilliantly explained by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her final book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West.
Benazir Bhutto posited that there are two elements primarily responsible for the lack of democratization in Muslim-majority countries: The battle within Islamic factions for “raw political and economic power” and “a long colonial period that drained developing countries of both natural and human resources.”
Despite these obstacles, Pakistan has a democratically elected government going into its third year; Tunisia’s dictator for a quarter-century has been forced from power; Egypt’s Tahrir square is overflowing with Muslims demanding the right to choose their own leaders. These developments have received mixed reactions in the West. Too many continue to fear that elections in Muslim-majority country will result in the “wrong” people gaining power and voters will not wake up in liberal democracies promoting post-enlightenment values. This is the wrong lens through which to view the rise of democracy in the Muslim world. As Benazir Bhutto wisely observed, “Democracies do not spring up fully developed overnight.”
It is here that Pakistan can serve as a valuable guide along the path of democratization in the Muslim world. Having gained freedom from the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, Pakistanis have been strengthening democratic governance, learning to balance political and national priorities, and creating an inclusive process that represents the aspirations of all Pakistanis.
That is not to say that there have been no mistakes, no set backs. But this is the nature of democracy. The difference this time is that mistakes and set backs are Pakistani in nature and not imposed by an outside power or an authoritarian dictator. As such, they can be learned from and reformed, and negative impacts will lack the permanence that they would otherwise. Benazir Bhutto described this process eloquently in Reconciliation:
We must think of a new democracy like a seedling that must be nourished, watered, fed, and given time to develop into a mighty tree. Thus, when democratic experiments are prematurely interrupted or disrupted, the effects can be, if not permanent, certainly long-lasting. Internal or external interruptions of democracy (both elections and governance) can have effects that ripple and linger over generations.
As we wrote on Friday, the US needs to give Pakistan’s democracy space to grow. This applies, of course, to all burgeoning democracies in the Muslim-majority nations. Islam and democracy are not incompatible, but will peacefully co-exist if allowed to grow and flourish naturally.
The political situation in Pakistan may appear volatile, and indeed the path of democracy, as our own history illustrates, is wrought with missteps. But there are no short cuts to democracy, and attempts to trade progress for stability will produce neither. Given nurturing and support, however, Pakistan can continue to serve as a guide to Muslims across the world who are struggling themselves for the ability to determine their own future.
When journalists write about religion in Pakistan, their articles usually focus on the extremist interpretation of Islam that is spread by terrorist groups like al Qaeda, or the consequences of this extremism like the murder of Salmaan Taseer. But just as Islam is not monolithic, neither is religion in Pakistan. In fact, the majority of Pakistanis adhere to a much more moderate reading of Islam. Religious scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi intends to keep it that way.
At a time when many pin their hopes on “moderate” secular Muslims to lead the charge against radical militant Islam, Ghamidi offers a more forceful and profound deconstruction of the violent and bitter version of Islam that appears to be gaining ground in many parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan. He challenges what he views as retrograde stances — on jihad, on the penal code of rape and adultery, on the curricula in the religious schools, or madrassas — but he does so with a purely fundamentalist approach: he rarely ventures outside the text of the Koran or prophetic tradition. He meticulously recovers detail from within the confines of religious text, and then delivers decisive blows to conservatives and militants who claim to be the defenders of Islam. His many followers are fond of comparing his influence in South Asia to that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim Islamic thinker of global repute, in Europe.
“Mr. Ghamidi has had a huge role in shaping Islamic laws in the country,” said Khalid Masood, the chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council in Islamabad. “And his debates on television have made a profound impact on public views.”
That’s from a profile of Mr. Ghamidi in yesterday’s Boston Globe, and one that Americans unfamiliar with moderate Islam would be well advised to read. Mr. Ghamidi is no revolutionary. He founded the Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences in 1983, and has been a member of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology – the official body responsible for advising the government on Islamic issues – since 2006. Mr. Ghamidi’s Al-Mawrid Institute has published numerous works on issues such as jihad, suicide bombing, and women’s rights that contradict the edicts pronounced by extremists.
In addition to his research on Islamic law, Mr. Ghamidi has been a vocal proponent of democracy in Pakistan.
Even more incendiary than his specific position on questions of Islamic law, though, is Ghamidi’s vision for the future of Islamic politics. Ever since the Islamization campaign in Pakistan in the 1970s, religious parties have been making deep inroads into political power. But their real glory days came after September 2001, when a coalition of religious political parties led by the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami landed a majority in two of the four provincial governments in Pakistan. Pakistan, which began as a secular republic, has increasingly Islamized thanks to shrewd realpolitik maneuvering by some religious leaders.
Ghamidi expounds a different ideal: Muslim states, he says, cannot be theocracies, yet they cannot be divorced from Islam either. Islam cannot simply be one competing ideology or interest group that reigns supreme one moment and is gone the next. He instead argues for the active investment of the state in building institutions that will help create a truly “Islamic democracy.”
This is vision for Pakistan’s political future similar to that laid out by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her last book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West.
It is being said that Pakistan is at war for its soul. Terrorists who adhere to an extremist, violent interpretation of Islam are attempting to influence the country at gunpoint. They bribe desperate young people with promises of heaven, and those that do not subscribe to their views they kill in cold blood.
But Pakistan’s soul is not being given up without a fight. The moderate majority of Pakistanis reject violence and extremism, and moderate religious scholars like Javed Ghamidi are fighting back not with bombs and guns but with scripture and reason. The moderates can win this battle, and in doing so realize the dream of the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah: A democratic, prosperous, peaceful Pakistan. They deserve our support in their struggle.
The assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer and the divided reaction among the Pakistani public reiterates the importance of American support for democracy and justice in Pakistan. As a nation that itself navigated dark days when forces of intolerance and extremism threatened violence across the land, the United States has a duty to stand by our friends as they struggle to secure their own future.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at Gettysburg in which he observed that the American civil war was testing whether any nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. In his resolve, he gave expression to the soul of the American nation:
That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The United States was 85 years old.
While Pakistan has not neared the threshold of civil war, this young nation founded on the principles of freedom and democracy faces a struggle similar to that which the United States wrestled as President Lincoln spoke those famous words.
Let there be no doubt we have a national crisis in Pakistan. We are fighting for the soul of country.
In 1947, the year Pakistan was founded, the father of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah said the following before the Constituent Assembly:
We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.
Six-months later he clarified this principle saying, “Make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.”
Sixty-four years later, Pakistan is torn between a peace-loving, democratically-inclined majority fighting to keep alive the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and a fanatic, violent minority who seek a theocratic state under a twisted interpretation of religion.
In the past, the US has, against its principles, supported military strongmen in Pakistan in the hope of stabilizing the country long enough for democracy to take root. Far from seeding democracy, however, these dictators sowed the seeds of religious extremism, poisoning the soil with hatred, intolerance, and mistrust.
While Pakistan’s militant groups do not have the strength or support to topple the civilian government, they are entrenched enough to disrupt the democratic process. They have assassinated two pro-democracy leaders in the past three years: Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and Salmaan Taseer in 2011.
Even more troubling is how the jihadi mindset that was nurtured by dictators with American acquiescence has spread. Considered unimportant until 9/11, this extremist ideology was left to work its way into educational curricula, into courtrooms, and into the rank and file of Pakistan’s security forces. Today it threatens to stunt the growth of democracy among a war-weary populace.
As Americans, we should be able to empathize. It was not so long ago that our own society was threatened by a poisonous ideology. Racist violence was perpetrated against individuals and the state by armed militias, schools taught pseudo-science based on an extremist ideology, and intolerance and hatred were institutionalized in courts.
But just as Americans came together to defeat the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation, and Jim Crow, Pakistan can and will see its way through the rocky waters they face today. Violence and intolerance is not inherent to Islam or to Pakistan, as is attested by the millions of peace-loving, tolerant Muslims and Pakistanis the world over. In fact, the natural affinity between Islam and democracy was made clear by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her final book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West.
As Americans, we have stared into the abyss, and we have seen what can become of a people who forsake justice. Ultimately, we chose the path of liberty. But this choice came not cheap, and the price was paid in the blood of hundreds of thousands of men and women.
Today, Pakistan finds itself staring into the abyss. The United States must stand by Pakistan in its time of trouble, providing guidance and support as it finds its own way to the path of liberty. We must not give in to the temptation of easy, short-term solutions. We have tried these before and they will fail us now as they have failed us before. We must stand firm in our principles and in our faith in democracy so that we may help the people of Pakistan ensure that their own government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.