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To a large extent Pakistani society’s conflicting tendencies towards religious fundamentalism are a result of the ambiguous ideology that led to the "land of the pure". How to establish a secular republic in a country that has been founded on the principle of religious identity has been a constant dilemma. The relatively progressive era of Pakistani politics came to an end when General Zia-ul-Haq established a military dictatorship that he promised to end "as soon as the rule of Allah has been established". While establishing Shariah was a convenient excuse for Zia to prolong his tenure (after all how do you know when the process of establishing the "rule of Allah" is complete? Who can say that we have had enough Islamization?), religious fundamentalism at that point was actively supported by the powers in the West, especially the US. The religious groups in Pakistan were the ones most enthusiastic about providing support to the Afghans fighting against communist Russia, a bigger danger to the US interests at that point.

The religious groups in Pakistan received massive aid for weapons and training for supporting the Afghan war. However, only the extremely short sighted could have believed that such continuos and immense transit of arms and drugs through Pakistan will not leave residues and will not have any effect on the Pakistani society. Students and youths especially became heavily armed and indoctrinated in the principles of religious fundamentalism. At the same time Zia’s Islamic rhetoric was increasingly turning Pakistan into a conservative society. Zia’s Islamization campaign was carried out at the expense of the weakest in the society: women, and religious minorities. However, it is a mistake to believe that such measures will impact only those sections of the society that are targeted; the fabric of the whole society changes. The generation growing up under Zia’s regime was also subjected to intensive religious propaganda from various venues including the school and state run TV. Many among this generation have grown up with a much more fundamentalist view of the world than their predecessors. The religious lobby, always a highly vocal group with legitimacy deriving from the general populace’s confusion about the role of religion in a Pakistani society, grew extremely influential during this regime.

Any social process once started does not stop immediately once the political and economic forces that instigated it change or end. The process of permeation of religious fundamentalism into the Pakistani society has continued beyond the end of the Zia regime and the Afghan war. If anything some of the political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami built the necessary momentum and organizational capability to become stronger players after the Zia era. Successive governments, of PPP or Muslim League, have continued to play the religion card for their own purposes as well as be forced into certain decisions to avoid appearing disrespectful of Islam. In fact, the development of a heightened religious identity has led to the creation of various factions most notably the Sipah-e-Sihaba and the Tehrik-e-Nifaze-Fiqah-Jafria. Both groups are in effect fighting proxy wars for the Sunni and Shia governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively. And war is the right word because these groups clash often, resulting in many deaths and general disruption of the security of innocent civilians. The establishment of the Taliban government in Afghanistan has given further support to Taliban and sympathetic groups within Pakistan that a similar rule of God can be established in Pakistan as well.

Many in the country feel helpless against this break down of the political, economic and social structures of the society in Pakistan, a break down hastened by the crushing debt burden taken on mostly for defence expenses, free market reforms and increasing immersion of the Pakistani economy into an unequal global structure. World Bank and IMF reforms have in fact made the situation worse by hastening the demise of the civil bureaucracy and political institutions in their bid to privatize the country. These reforms have also meant that an increasing number of disenfranchised youth have extremely bleak prospects to look forward to. They form fodder for the religious fundamentalist groups preaching a revolution that will bring the equality and prosperity the current system has no hope of ever achieving. Given the demise of the left through either coercion during Bhutto and Zia regimes or co-option, and the apathy of the current political parties, some of the better organized religious political parties like the Jamaat are much closer to the pulse of the people. The people of Pakistan have not yet given a mandate to the Jamaat, but it enjoys legitimacy and power through its ability to lobby strongly for the interests of religion. Finally liberal forces in the country cannot match the willingness of the religious groups to forge "Jihad" nor their armed and organized cadres.

It is no doubt an extremely frustrating and worrisome situation for Pakistani around the world and for all South Asians because the fundamentalist groups are also the ones most actively fueling tensions between India and Pakistan and thus affecting the stability of the region as a whole. The forces that can offer some resistance to this worrisome trend in Pakistan can benefit from the support of the Pakistani Diaspora in North America just like the Jamaat in particular counts on monetary and political support of the same. Progressive South Asians need to join hands together to help build stronger societies in the South Asian region and in North America. The conference to be held in September in Montreal is one step towards building a coalition and devising an action plan towards proactively achieving that goal.
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