Interview: Pervez Hoodbhoy

Interview: Pervez Hoodbhoy

 
 

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a prominent Pakistani nuclear physicist, essayist and defense analyst. In 2011, he was included on the list of 100 most influential global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, for his “bold secular defiance.” His articles and commentaries about Islam, education, and secularism have had a lasting impact on debates in Pakistan. He recently spoke with Muhammad Akbar Notezai on liberalism, religious freedom, and extremism in Pakistan.

Who are Pakistan’s liberals, really?

They are a diffuse bunch who would like a freer world for themselves and others. They’re not going to fight hard for a change or lay down their lives, but they’d certainly prefer to have a society where one is not forced to live under some imposed ideology, whether religious or secular. So the liberal doesn’t want any ideologue, or an Islamic, Hindu, Christian, or Marxist state telling him or her what to do. Liberals value the freedom of expression, personal and political, and so they say you have the right to dress and wear the clothes of your personal choice. Also to eat and drink as you will, and pray often or pray never, and be able to choose your religion or not have one at all. In the liberal mind, covering a woman’s face or head should be entirely optional. Women can have jobs if they want and should not be forced to stay at home.

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But that’s where it ends. Liberals can have very different positions on matters that are not directly related to personal liberties. So they can be just as insensitive as others when it comes to matters of social inequality or poverty. Should education and health be the responsibility of the state? What about water, sewage, roads? This raises the issue of who will pay for it and the amount of tax that an individual should be required to pay. You have liberals who say that agriculture, industry, and business should be taxed but also liberals who believe in laissez faire capitalism with almost no taxes and no state controls.

Generally speaking liberals feel friendlier, or at least are less hostile, to the West. This is why they are frequently accused by religious conservatives of being agents of the West. But Pakistani liberals are also prone to conspiracy theories and generally quite confused about whether they should be with or against the West.

And who are the so-called liberal fascists?

You’ll have to ask Hamid Mir that. He’s written articles saying that people like me are liberal fascists who are intolerant of others. I’ve never quite understood that argument because although I have my opinions, I’ve never imposed my wishes on any segment of society. So although I may think that girls and boys should be allowed to make friendships, I would certainly never say that every girl should have a boyfriend. Liberals are not violent people. It wasn’t a liberal fascist who shot and nearly killed Mr. Mir; it was somebody with a strong ideology.

In Pakistan, some writers say that liberals and progressives themselves are responsible for abandoning their positions, which is why religious zealots are morally and politically gaining positions. How do you look at it?

Before the fury of religious zealots, few Pakistani liberals have had the courage to risk themselves because they aren’t that anxious to get to heaven. Yes, they have preferences, but they don’t have a mission. Most of them just want the good life for themselves, and barely a few have bothered to understand the meaning of freedom and its philosophical implications. They wouldn’t be able to point to a book or document – such as the Quran, Bible, or Communist Manifesto – that defines their kind. Actually there is one: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948 by the United Nations. But most liberals haven’t even heard of it!

Because they are non-ideological, liberals are generally unwilling to stand up and intellectually defend their lifestyle. On the other hand, Islamists are thoroughly ideological, hence evangelical and forever out on a daawah mission. They cannot let you live the way you want because they feel it is their religious duty to set you on the right path, amr bil maroof wa nahi anil munkar!  So they feel compelled to interfere in your way of life, and in what you may want to eat, drink, or wear.

Do you think the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), and the ANP (Awami National Party), which align themselves with the liberal left, are working for a progressive Pakistan?

All three parties have been systematically targeted by the Taliban, who have accused them of being secular and hence the enemies of Islam. So hundreds of their workers and leaders were murdered in the run up to the 2013 elections. That was one reason for losing out to PMLN (Pakistan Muslim Leaque-Nawaz), PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf), Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam, etc. All three parties have my sympathies and, in particular, the ANP which has lost more than the others.

But let’s be clear. These three parties are not fighting for an idea or a better Pakistan. They are simply fighting for power and influence. They have no blueprint, no manifesto, no ideology. They are not real left-wing parties, but are considered left-wing because they don’t have a religious mission while the other parties do.

The PPP is run by dynastic rule and is the epitome of corruption, incompetence, and callousness. We should not blame Asif Ali Zardari alone for that; Benazir Bhutto was equally crooked and the Swiss accounts were held jointly by husband and wife. Although this may now be coming to an end, no Karachite is going to forget the MQM’s decades of murder, body bags, and extortion. As for ANP: Bacha Khan would be ashamed to see what this has become, with its leaders stuffing their pockets and doing little else.

Why did liberals fail to defend Malala Yousafzai, who was frequently used by conservatives in Pakistan of selling out to the West?

Pakistani liberals are mostly cowards, but even the few brave ones had then lost their sense of balance. Malala was shot at the time when anti-Americanism was at its peak. People were even more anti-America than anti-India in those days. Every TV anchor would flatly lay the blame for everything on America’s doorstep. Then you had Imran Khan screaming and shouting about drones. So when Malala was shot, a lot of liberals suddenly lost their liberalism and didn’t see her as a kid who had fought heroically to keep herself in school. Instead they only saw the dark forces of imperialism seeking to manipulate a child and extract political mileage out of her. It was incredibly bad judgment.

Can progressive forces prosper in Pakistan in the presence of the Objectives Resolution as preamble to the Constitution?

The Objectives Resolution was an enormous disappointment to the non-Muslims of Pakistan when it was passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. It stripped away the authority of the people and made the state the sole authority for behaving as God wants. But there is the obvious question of who should interpret the wishes of God. Seventy years later, nobody trusts the mullahs for this purpose and they don’t even trust each other.

Just look at the recent rulings of the Council of Islamic Ideology. These have included the abolition of age limits for a girl’s marriageability, making child marriages permissible. A man would not need his wife’s permission for another marriage, whether that be the second, third, or fourth one. The CII also declared that Islam had given women the right to separate from her husband, but his other marriage could not be a valid ground for doing so. Incredibly, it ruled that DNA is insufficient evidence for a rape. Who is willing to accept such things, and live in a horrifying Pakistan run by mullahs?

Ultimately sanity will have to prevail. We cannot run Pakistan like Daesh (ISIS) does. In this age having slaves, including sex slaves, is not an option even if the mullahs argue that this is permissible under Islam. We cannot extract jizyah from Pakistani non-Muslims and treat them as a conquered people. Amputation of limbs or severing of heads is going to be seen as extreme barbarity by all the world and most Pakistanis as well. Imposing 7th century sharia laws upon 21st century people will lead to a massive implosion.

What are your thoughts on shrinking space for reason in Pakistan?

It’s shrunk, but not down to zero. You can still argue out things in the English press. Sometimes they are afraid to publish bold articles, but they can still take the risk because English newspapers have relatively little impact because of limited readership. The Urdu press is quite terrible. Still, occasionally one does see some sign of sanity there.

The real fountainhead of irrationality in Pakistan is its electronic media. Cheap posturing, thrilling sound-bytes, unsupported claims – everything goes. In particular, you have the media mujahideen who have done enormous damage to the population’s power to reason. Unfettered by the need to present evidence, they invoke bizarre conspiracy theories involving foreign hands, corruption, and every kind of hearsay. This will have to change. Some kind of mechanism to weed out these people is necessary.

How do you view religious freedom in Pakistan?

It’s very much better than in the areas controlled by Daesh, or even in Saudi Arabia. There you have none. Any number compared with zero is bigger, so that’s not saying very much. We have a horrific blasphemy law principally aimed at subduing non-Muslims, and even saying it needs revision has gotten people like Governor Salman Taseer or Shahbaz Bhatti (a cabinet minister) killed. Lawyers, such as the brave Rashid Rahman, seeking to defend the blasphemy accused have been murdered. It’s also true that Christians and Hindus are so terrified of persecution and discrimination that they have switched their names to Muslim-sounding ones.

But there is still some recourse, as in the Supreme Court ruling of last year forbidding religious discrimination. And now the death sentence for the self-confessed killer of Governor Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, has been reconfirmed by the Supreme Court. And now the Pakistan Army has finally turned against its own creation, the Taliban, and is whacking them hard. So I’d say that all is not lost.

What are your thoughts on Pakistan’s fight against extremism, which has engulfed the country?

So far an eviscerated, embattled state has found it easier to drop bombs on the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) in tribal Waziristan rather than to rein in its urban supporters, or to dismiss from the state payroll those mosque leaders belonging to militant groups. The problem is that today’s terrorists are yesterday’s allies. In fact they were actively assisted – you could argue created – by the Pakistani state in earlier decades to help liberate Kashmir and create strategic depth in Afghanistan. So there’s discomfort there.

The mosque in Pakistan is now no longer just a religious institution. Instead it has morphed into a deeply political one that seeks to radically transform culture and society. But, since it does not have the power to bring about this change, parts of the religious establishment have decided on asymmetric warfare – which is a polite word for terrorism. The mosques and madrassas will have to be tamed. They’ll have to be told that the state is the boss.

The first baby step towards bringing an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 mosques under state control requires tasking local authorities at the district and tehsil level with documentation: mosque locations, sizes, religious affiliation, and known sources of funding. The second is to monitor Friday sermons, a possibility offered by modern technology. Many worshippers have mobile phones capable of recording audio. A sermon, once recorded, could be uploaded to a website operated by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This way we could know which mullah is saying what.

What curriculum reforms does Pakistan need to fight the extremism?

Pakistan’s real problem is that of education. But it’s not simply that the number of schools or universities is insufficient. Rather, the stuff we teach in them is the problem. Our schools, colleges, and universities are sheep farms where students are taught to obey without challenge or question. Obedience is rewarded, independence is penalized. The teacher is the roohani baap (spiritual father). What nonsense! Teachers should be treated as professionals whose job is to impart certain skills to those they teach, for which they get a salary.

The amount of poisonous hatred we inject into the student’s bloodstream is shocking. Hindus are bad and dirty, the West is against Islam, women are inferior, Muslims are superior to everyone else, etc. Now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has included a compulsory chapter on Ghazi Ilm Din, who stabbed to death a Hindu blasphemer in the 1920s.  Okay, celebrate murder and then be prepared for a thousand murderers like Mumtaz Qadri.

Making a new curriculum is not rocket science. Just look at what kids around the world, say in grade six, are taught and then teach them the same subjects after making the usual adaptations for a different climate, culture, etc. Don’t emulate Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, India, or other countries with a narrow vision. Instead there are pluralistic, multicultural countries which actively seek to make children broad-minded and well-informed.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai is a columnist at the Daily Times. Visit his blog or follow him on Twitter @Akbar_notezai. He can be reached at [email protected].

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