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Editorial | What The State Can Do About Ugly Religious Extremism

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The wages of weaponized faith are once again on display in Pakistan – this time in Multan. The district bar association has reportedly passed a resolution barring non-Muslim lawyers from contesting elections. Lawyers contesting bar elections will also need to submit an affidavit to prove their faith of Islam.

Now this is, of course, aimed primarily at one particular religious group, but it ends up disqualifying all religious minorities. Nor would it have been justified even if it had been strictly limited to excluding one particular religious community – for the simple reason that such exclusion is repugnant to basic decency.

Let us leave aside the Multan’s district bar association’s lack of interest in decency. And let us consider, instead, its meaning for Pakistan as a whole.

It points yet again to the halfhearted attempts by those at the helm of affairs to present a “softer” image of Pakistan. The attitude seems to be that a lot of censorship and a few cosmetic steps to give the impression of pluralism will solve the country’s religious extremism problem. But it will not work.

The rot of religious extremism and majoritarianism affects this society from the lowest rungs to the highest corridors of power. It cannot be addressed as merely an “image problem” which can be “fixed” with better PR. After all, no amount of PR can ever counteract the nasty sights and sounds of religious hatred that constantly bubble up and seep out of the cauldron.

If those in power are serious about addressing the roots of our image problem, i.e. the rot in our society, they will have to empower the brave human rights defenders, journalists and political activists who confront this madness against all odds. Rather than demonize them or portray them as “foreign agents”, the state will have to stand behind these reformers with determination. Above all, the state will have to defend them from conspiracy theories touted by right-wing religious groups rather than adding officially-sanctioned conspiracy theories to the poisonous mess.

In discussing such matters, the curse of relativism will also have to come to an end. It is no longer acceptable to say “this sort of thing happens in India and the West too”. Whether or not that really is the case, it makes for poor consolation for those ordinary people at the receiving end of the hate-filled poison within Pakistan – for instance, those who will be affected by the Multan district bar association’s medieval-sounding decrees.

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