KARACHI: The incidents in Pakistan that have unfolded in the past couple of weeks have been real eye-openers. Whether it was the issue of Facebook censorship or the Ahmadi killings in Lahore, I feel the reactions to such incidents have taught me a lot about understanding intolerance.
I had no idea what was in store for me when I wrote about the Facebook controversy, in which the Pakistani government banned access to Facebook because of a group on the social networking site advocating drawing the Prophet Mohamed. In fact, I wrote about intolerance before the ban and, of course, took a strong stance against internet censorship after the ban was implemented. Little did I know that it was because of my stance on the topic that I was declared a ”blasphemer”, ”liberal apologist” and, my personal favorite, ”a [headscarf-wearing] CIA, RAW, MOSSAD agent.”
Even worse was the fact that people with whom I would normally interact online joined the bandwagon and questioned my faith. It had come to a point where a stance against censorship was being put in the same league as being against the Prophet.
More than once I was asked to clarify whether I was “with the Prophet or with Facebook”. Such reactions highlight the extremist ideology that has been brewing inside some Pakistanis for years, the kind of ideology which otherwise remains dormant but resurfaces with the slightest of issues.
Even more shocking were the reactions — many in the form of denials — that came after the Ahmadi killings. Denying that a certain persecuted section of the minority was targeted only reflects the fact that we continue to leave the intolerance in our country unacknowledged.
For years now, there has been talk about the need for a platform where people — particularly youth — can engage with one another and develop a better understanding of Pakistan’s history, and its diverse cultures and religions. Over the years, we have seen many such reformist movements that either end up getting hijacked for political means or die out altogether.
Though a little apprehensive given this past history of reformist movements, I decided to attend an event launching Khudi, a social movement that aspires to counter extremist ideologies in Pakistan and promote a democratic culture throughout the country.
The man behind the movement, Maajid Nawaz, was previously a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that aims to unite Muslims across the world under a single caliphate. Though the ideology of the organization is an extreme one, it is not a terrorist group.
But what makes Khudi even more appealing is the fact that Nawaz’s efforts stem from his own past experiences with extremism.
It is his journey as a young teenager which led to his reformation. He dealt with racism in Britain, where he was raised, and then joined and propagated the message of Hizb ut-Tahrir. This eventually landed him in prison in Egypt, where the group is banned. It was there that he began to read about Islam in depth and realized how wrong his exclusivist message had been. Nawaz’s own experiences make his desire to counter extremism even more achievable: after all, if this man, who survived this kind of ordeal, is now ready to stand against extremism, so can others.
The factors that continue to incite intolerance and hate speech in Pakistan tend to remain hidden, and are not often brought to the forefront. Identifying these factors is crucial. And this is where social movements such as Khudi can play a vital role.
Nawaz’s Khudi movement promises to promote a democratic culture in Pakistan, considering it the antidote for extremism. Hopefully, there will be more movements like this that address such ideologies in the country.
There is no doubt that we desperately need to promote democratic culture, the kind that encourages us to respect individual rights and diverse opinions. After all, democracy is not limited to the right to vote in political elections; it is about tolerance and coexistence; it is about celebrating our heroes; it is about standing in solidarity with victims, irrespective of their beliefs; and it is about being humanitarians.
As Nawaz points out: “Democracy must forever remain a prisoner to human rights. Democratic culture is about respecting human rights, freedom of speech and individual choice.”
Sana Saleem is Features Editor at BEE magazine and blogs at Global Voices, Pro-Pakistan and her personal blog Mystified Justice. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Dawn Blog.