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.