Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The journey from extremism to tolerance, Muhammad Rabnawaz Awan

The journey from extremism to tolerance, Muhammad Rabnawaz Awan
Had I not transformed, I would have termed Dr A.Q. Khan, arguably the biggest Pakistani patriot on the face of the earth, as a traitor for using the word ‘massacre’ for Operation Searchlight victims

I began life quite religiously. Raised in an ultra-Muslim home, I attended a religious school at an early age. My father, a die-hard fan of Muhammad Ziaul-Haq, the former military dictator of Pakistan, had a great influence on my thinking. Haq is often epitomised as religious extremism in Pakistan. The unbounded admiration of the authoritarian leader had made my father one of the most ardent haters of democracy on the planet. Perhaps predictably, I shared his ideological hatred toward democracy.
In my youth, I had a highly simplified view of the world. I was an implacable enemy of India, as it was considered a prerequisite for all Pakistani patriots to hate India day in day out. In those days, I would approvingly quote the lofty thought of Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, a “liberal” Islamic scholar, who had demonised Hindus by calling them bloodthirsty beasts, dreadful crocodiles, and cunning foxes.
Nawa-i-Waqt, the ultimate guardian of the ideology of Pakistan, was heaped praised by me because it had reproduced this demonisation of Hindus on February 22, 2004. Now I imagine what would have the reaction in Pakistan if any Indian newspaper had published such a piece against Muslims.
Besides his credentials as a journalist, Majeed Nizami, the late media baron, was also my hero due to his fondest wish of “be(ing) tied to a nuclear bomb and get(ting) dropped on India.” I also felt highly obliged to his most patriotic newspaper in the country, which had informed us that the 9/11 attack was carried out by the Americans themselves and that “there were 4,000 Jews who were absent from work that day.”
I also regarded Zaid Zaman Hamid, a controversial political commentator, as my hero due to his anti-India rhetoric. At that time, I had little ability to get past the rhetoric and critically analyse what was motivating the speaker. Orya Maqbool Jan’s diatribe against democracy and secularism highly appealed me without knowing that secularism and tolerance were virtually synonymous with each other. Jan had also made me believe that democracy is against the Quran.
Before evolution, likewise most of the religious young people, my premature politicised mind was ripe to receive any ideology that would have sought the solution to the ummah’s problems in a black-and-white manner. This was why I was attracted to Islamism; a political ideology that sought to overthrow democracy in order to implement a narrowly-interpreted Sharia law.
In those days, my fondest desire was to see an Islamic revolution. The rhetoric of peaceful revolution from a Barelvi school of thought revolution-seeker party was so appealing to me. So, in order to bring the peaceful Islamic revolution, I formally joined it in 2002. But I was deeply disappointed when this ingrate nation did not recognise my leader as its messiah despite him wanting to serve in the humble position of prime minister under Pervez Musharraf, the former military dictator. Now, when I analyse the past events dispassionately, it reveals on me that it was his delusion of grandeur that had led him on to his unfortunate fate.
East Pakistan had occupied a special place in my narrative of victimhood. To me, losing a half of my country in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh was the ultimate proof of Jewish and Hindu sinister conspiracies against Muslims. I loved to live in denial. My approach remained, “If there are any problems in this country, it is all outsiders fault. Let alone blame, we don’t deserve any criticism.” Regarding East Pakistan, I used to believe that it were Hindu teachers who had preached hate against West Pakistan. Consequently, the Bengalis were misguided. In fact, I was a staunch supporter of brutal military action, which had parted them from us as far as the East is from the West.
I used to call the voters and supporters of the Awami League traitors, and any criticism, no matter how reasoned, of the military establishment role in the breaking of Pakistan would disturb me immeasurably. The most important fact regarding the creation of Bangladesh was missing in my discourse those days; the holocaust of Bengalis. Had I not transformed, I would have termed Dr A.Q. Khan, arguably the biggest Pakistani patriot on the face of the earth, as a traitor for using the word ‘massacre’ for Operation Searchlight victims.
It was not until my late twenties that I met a mentor who altered the course of not only my life but also my thinking. My desire to question my own assumptions was greatly encouraged by him. I can distinctly remember the struggle to leave years-old prejudices behind. I used to think as if I was on trial. My half-baked ideas were under scrutiny. Later, due to the courtesy of the constant thought- therapy by a father-figure guide, it slowly dawned on me that I needed to get away from simplistic ideas of good and evil.
I was urged to believe in research before forming my opinions. By improving my critical thinking skills, I ceased to be a blind follower as well as defender of any ideology. Consequently, I am now at peace with myself and others. I have also realised that substantial reliance on hearsay is an impediment to success.
In addition, I have realised that unsubstantiated assertions should be debated and challenged. And it is imperative that educated people amongst us develop a counter-narrative against the victim mentality and self-touted righteousness upon the rest of the world. Based on my own experiences, my message to the youth — subject to brainwashing in Pakistan—would be to develop their own capacities to tolerate the dissenting opinion. Further, they should work on developing their critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, our education system has no place for critical thinking skills. In fact, the term remains alien to most of our teachers. And herein lies the problem. By contrast, critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success in Western educational systems. The need is thus that our educated people should excel in critical thinking because it challenges the black-and-white views of the society by undermining their simplification and certitude.

The writer is an Islamabad-based media and public relations professional. He can be reached at He tweets at @rabnawazminhaj

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