Ever since the demise of General Zia in 1988, and the end of his dictatorship — which has often been blamed for unleashing the genie of religious extremism in Pakistan — many post-Zia governments, as well as the military establishment, have attempted to put the genie back in the bottle. But it’s been a long, hard slog.

For this purpose, the government and state institutions have tried to work around various awkward constitutional amendments that were put in place between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, in the name of Islam. These amendments have made it tough for the state and various Pakistani governments to free the federation from traps that their reformist attempts keep falling into.

This is due to the fact that not only are the government and state now trying to reverse what they had introduced themselves, but also because the constitutional amendments in this context have become tools in the hands of various opportunistic politicians and religious outfits. They can (and often do) easily move the courts (or worse, whip up populist sentiments) against any attempt to expunge these thorny constitutional tracts.

The dilemma regarding moderation and religious extremism in Pakistan today existed even in pre-Partition times

Then, of course, there are tussles within the state and government institutions over this issue, for within these institutions are still those who do not hesitate to use the controversial constitutional conditions for the same reason that a political party or a religious outfit would.

But one thing is for sure. A major chunk of conventional political parties and the state have become more than conscious of the need to somehow push through various changes in the country’s constitution to overcome acts of violence and bigotry that many believe are actually encouraged by certain constitutional clauses.

On most occasions, whenever a government or the state has stressed the importance of making a change, they have used the pretext that Pakistan’s majority faith and Pakistanis in general are inherently moderate and that religious extremism in this country is an anomaly that has been allowed to mutate and spread its tentacles.

Yet, there is no widespread consensus on what being ‘moderate’ encapsulates. Various thoughts and concepts have been put forward to define it, using hefty tracts of Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal and the speeches of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. However, considering the context and dilemma which Pakistan finds itself in today, I believe one of the most interesting examples in this regard lies before the creation of Pakistan.

A little less than a century before Pakistan’s birth in 1947, ulema representing India’s demoralised Muslim minority were greatly angered by the reformist appeals of scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Syed Ameer Ali. Ali and Khan advocated a radical break from what they termed was a “fossilised past” which was impeding the intellectual, political and economic growth of the Muslims in an “epoch of modernity.” In 1879, Khan’s increasingly influential ideology was given a more poetic shape by Altaf Hussain Hali in his long poem Mussadas-i-Hali. This poem completely wrangled with conservative thought.

Hali accused the clergy and ulema by of being “beggars in disguise, peddling hollow scholarship.” He mocked them for “specialising in rudeness” and for spending more time chasing down “liberal Muslims” rather than confronting their non-Muslim critics.

In the poem, after greatly romanticising Islam’s past when the faith produced great intellectuals, scientists and philosophers, Hali wrote that Islam’s “vital role was spiritual and cultural rather than political.” He lamented that Muslims had let go of their faith’s “historical attachment with science” and that they were doggedly holding on to “myopic traditions” instiled in them by reactionary preachers. Hali accused the clergy and ulema of being “beggars in disguise, peddling hollow scholarship.” He mocked them for “specialising in rudeness” and for spending more time chasing down “liberal Muslims” rather than confronting their non-Muslim critics.

As a reaction to the growing schism at the time between Islamic modernists and conservative ulema, Islamic scholar Shibli Nomani appealed for a middle path. As in present-day Pakistan, even though the modernists were declared Muslims, they were attacked by their conservative opponents for being irreligious, Westernised and secular. In 1894, Nomani, with a few other “moderate ulema,” established a seminary in Lucknow that was to act as a bridge between the “radical Muslim modernists” of Khan’s Aligarh school of thought and the equally radical traditionalists who were mostly based in a seminary in Deoband.

Nomani explained his middle-path approach in his various writings. In a speech he said that the ulema may continue preaching conformity but will have to do so in the light of rationality to rout out fanaticism and rigidity. He was of the view that if they did not do so, they would become ineffectual relics of the past, and struggle to address the challenges posed by colonial rule, Islamic modernism and science. In Ilmul Kalam, one of his works on Muslim theology, Nomani asked the ulema to form a modern system of theological dialectics in order to remain relevant.

Aligarh modernists had welcomed Nomani’s attempts, but by 1904, ulema from Nomani’s seminary not only shunned any linkage with the Aligarh school of thought, they also turned against him. What’s more, during the same period, Nomani too cut links with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s followers and became a pan-Islamist. His seminary became as conservative as the one in Deoband.

This episode is symptomatic of all attempts at ‘moderatism’ in Pakistan by those who advocate a middle-path to eschew extremism. The intent is noble but, every time, it faces stern resistance from traditionalists and conservatives. The so-called moderates — sometimes due to political/electoral reasons, and sometimes because of the apparently vague ideological disposition of moderatism — back down, leaving more space for the extremists to manoeuvre and frustrate any attempt to implement religion-based constitutional and institutional reforms.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 4th, 2018