—Ahmad Ali Khalid
The surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary clerics has opened a vacuum for conservatives and violent extremists to thrive. There are few clerics in Pakistan who have made any authoritative study into human rights theory and philosophy and translated this successfully to the public sphere at large
The exchange and competition of ideas happens through mediums, they do not appear in a social vacuum and literature is one of the most important mediums for the propagation of ideas.
It is clear that the major genre of literature in Pakistan is of a religious nature. Pakistani liberals cannot shy away from the fact that religion defines the consciousness of the people. The radicalisation of Pakistani society by religious groups producing, on a mass scale, literature about politics and civic values such as the validity of tolerance underlies this fact even further. People in Pakistan do read; what they read is of a religious nature and the use of language is cosmic not secular. The growing phenomenon of jihadi cyber media and publications further illustrates how radicals and extremists can tap into this religious sentimentality to further their discourse of political theology.
The answer lies in the language and the importance of critical and rigorous engagement with the religious traditions of Islam. Political ideology is concerned with goals and visions and the method to achieve them. It is quintessentially a normative thought process, discussing how things ought to be. It is a disparate and diverse corpus and tradition of thought, with excursions in multiple domains of human activity and intellectual endeavour whether it is science or economics. Hence, it is markedly different from political theology. Political theology is the interaction of political philosophy and faith; it is where a framework of scriptural hermeneutics defines political ethics and morality.
Hence, the whole conceptual scheme of pitting ‘conservative Islamists’ with ‘progressive liberal secularists’ is a false one. There are liberal Islamists, conservative Islamists and radical Islamists. Since Islamism in itself is an expression of political theology, it can have various persuasions, for instance the Tunisian Rashid al-Ghannouchi is considered a liberal Islamist, while the AKP Party in Turkey is considered Islamist but has introduced multiple democratic and social transformations that can be seen as liberal. Hence it can be quite alienating to many Muslim communities to equivocate Islamism with violent extremism. Be that as it may, conservative proponents of political theology are more media savvy, mobile and tend to be better at communicating their ideas to societies at large from the grassroots up than their liberal and reformist counterparts.
On the question of why, in Pakistan, there is no viable mainstream discourse of liberal political theology, the answer remains that the Left and liberals, while lamenting the loss of the secular paradise Jinnah was meant to have propagated, have abdicated and surrendered religious discourse to the conservatives. Pakistani governments have always made concessions to accommodate the religious right in all matters, including the repeal of discriminatory laws. The surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary clerics has opened a vacuum for conservatives and violent extremists to thrive. There are few clerics in Pakistan who have made any authoritative study into human rights theory and philosophy, argued for a liberal position of respecting rights in terms of equality and discriminatory practices and translated this successfully to the public sphere at large.
Whereas conservatives frequently publish pamphlets and manuals denouncing concepts such as human rights and democracy, arguing for a crass cultural and ethical relativism, liberals have been trying to accommodate this rather than directly challenging the weak religious foundations of this political theology. In Pakistan the puritanical strains of religious tradition are dictating political norms and they remain unchallenged in terms of counter liberal political theologies. It is no good to simply quote a few Quranic verses and have a piecemeal application and utilitarian use of religious rhetoric to combat this phenomenon; a deep and critical engagement with the religious tradition is needed to produce new hermeneutical, ethical and political frameworks. This can only be done through the printed word.
For Pakistani liberals to have a truly transformational effect, they need to speak in the religious idiom and bring to the table a rigorous and charismatic theology of liberality. It is critical to talk about the arts, Urdu literature and the humanities but not as a hope that it will act as a creative buffer against radicalisation. The real buffer against terrorism with a religious impulse is a culture of religious tolerance and pluralism borne out of a unique theology of liberality in combination with these aforementioned disciplines.
Examples of liberal theology, the use of the religious tradition to cultivate democratic sensibilities and cherishment of tolerance and diversity do exist among Muslim intellectuals. Unfortunately, their presence is being felt mainly in traditionally non-Muslim societies in the US and Europe. There is an issue of outspoken religious liberals being exiled or forced out from their own countries due to their writings such as Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt, Abdul Karim Soroush in Iran or the late Professor Fazlur Rahman in Pakistan. These are the theologians and religious intellectuals who call for greater democracy, tolerance and pluralism, but do so from within the religious tradition which is why their voices are more potent than say the secular left who try and locate these same concepts but in a foreign idiom. That is not to say that one should reject an idea on the basis of its origin. However, this is the reality of social and political discourse in Muslim societies.
Conservatives and the right cannot alone determine social, political or cultural norms, since they have a second hand and superficial grasp of the complex and interconnected issues associated with the establishment of such norms. Hence, there is a requirement for Muslim intellectuals in other traditions to contribute to the process of religious interpretation. In short, a reintroduction of critical rationalism back into the jurisprudential and ethical-legal traditions of Islam has been one of the defining contours of the projects of these intellectuals.
In short, liberals need to break the monopoly conservatives have over religious discourse in Pakistan. Liberals and progressives should not concede religious discourse to conservatives. Rather, they should reclaim the arena of religious interpretation and challenge these conservative political theologies. In order to move from the fanaticism and intolerance that brings about so much bloodshed, we can draw on our own religious traditions, such as the Prophet’s (PBUH) saying, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Moving from jihad to ijtihad is needed to shape a religiosity that endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity.
The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England