In Pakistan Some Extremisms are Worth Strengthening

BY JAVED JABBAR: My first article published on November 1, 2021, juxtaposed “moderate” with “Pakistan.” That probably raised some skeptical eyebrows — until the text was read. This second contribution’s title may fortify strongly entrenched misperceptions which actually deserve reconsideration.

Verbal extremism and physical violence of individual zealots, fringe groups, and fanatic mobs receive prominent coverage by news media. When such excesses periodically recur, misleading notions take hold. 

The silent, non-violent majority is generally passive. Because it does not spew hate or hurl stones or fire bullets, it receives no coverage because it is not newsy enough. By virtue of not being “reported,” this vast majority seems not even to exist. 

Most foreign visitors, especially from the West, who see Pakistan for the first time, say: “How different your country is from what I thought it was through media coverage.” Some years ago, an outgoing Consul General of Germany said at a farewell dinner: “When I was posted to Karachi, I did not want to come. Now, three years later, I do not want to leave.”

Just after New Zealand cricketers insensitively declined to play their first game hours before start-time due to an allegedly credible threat of a terrorist attack — the source of such dubious, malicious disinformation has never been shared — a group of about 20 single American female motorbike enthusiasts completed their journey from the spectacular mountains of North Pakistan to the Arabian Sea coastline. They exulted in the safety and security they experienced all the way.

While inexcusably promoting one’s own book — but only because it is perhaps relevant to the subject of this reflection — I wrote a slim volume published three years ago titled What is Pakistaniat? (Paramount Books, Karachi). The aim was to conduct a cerebral, physical, emotional X-ray of the disparate elements that shape the unique Pakistani national identity, 30 positive elements were presented along with 11 negative elements. 

The duality, despite the disparity in the two numbers, simply mirrors the ambivalence of human nature and is not exclusive to my country — though the permutation of all 41 elements together gives “Pakistaniat” an exclusivity of its own. 

To cite only three of the 11 negative elements: There is emotional volatility about religion per se. Leave alone the inability of bigots to conduct calm, reasoned debate on religious issues, even among many non-violent, moderately tempered individuals, any attempt to raise questions about rituals and widely-cited but weakly authenticated Hadiths (sayings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)) are unable to put aside their hypersensitivity and showy religiosity. 

In large cities, one dichotomy is illustrative: Under-educated but fluent-in-Arabic prayer leaders preside over congregations of well-educated worshipers unwilling to question unIslamic rants against non-Muslims during sermons. 

Despite high public awareness about corruption in public and private sectors — with a prime minister who, almost uni-dimensionally, keeps a strident focus on this malaise — there is virtual apathy about the decline in ethics. 

The Corruption Perception Index may rank 60 or 70 countries as being more corrupt than Pakistan. Even though methods used to measure this malady may be inadequate and give misleading results, there nevertheless exists, side-by-side — widespread despair and widespread indulgence in the very same bribe-giving and bribe-taking that is verbally abhorred.

One other favorite extreme is to claim conspiracies. Popular external villains are India, Israel, the US. Popular internal sources: Politicians, the army, and feudals. An unwillingness to accept individual and collective self-responsibility is fairly common. 

Yet there are also several saving graces of Pakistani extremism. Three of these are fortunately as prevalent as the negative elements. The poor and the dispossessed also demonstrate facets of these three positive extremes.

First: An infinite capacity for hospitality. Be it millions of Afghan refugees hosted for over 40 years, in camps or across the country. Be it strangers met for the first time and invited promptly to tea or to a meal. Or be it succor provided to internally displaced persons from floods, earthquakes, anti-terrorism campaigns.

Second: A spontaneously helpful nature and a warm, friendly persona. Whenever an abnormal event occurs, without care for their own safety, people rush forth to bring relief to the distressed, donate blood, or provide help in cash or in kind.

Third: An exceptionally compassionate, generous nature. An authoritative survey shows that while the rich obviously give much more, the poor give more frequently. 

An eloquent expression of philanthropic extremism is the sign at the Radiology Department in Jinnah Hospital, Karachi: “The only free cyberknife facility on this planet.” Whereas in every other country, a cancer patient has to be either a citizen or able to pay for services, at this facility, any human being from anywhere in the world is eligible to receive highly sophisticated, very expensive medical treatment without any charge whatsoever.

Some extremisms are worth strengthening.

Javed Jabbar is an author and former Senator and Federal Minister, Pakistan.