More conservative?


Is Pakistani society more conservative now than it was, say, 30 years ago?
This is a question that has been raised a number of times over the last 10 odd years. I write about this particular question today because a year ago, 88 people lost their lives in a terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques. While the event was in itself a great travesty, societal reaction that followed brought the above stated question into sharp focus. Media channels and several journalists jostled to prove their puritanical credentials, mainly by ensuring ‘proper’ terminology was used both for the deceased as well as the sites of attack, and were accompanied by a not-too-thin veneer of acceptability from urban society in general.
On a number of other occasions, there has been general consensus of opinion that present-day society is a lot more conservative, and is so because of geo-strategic politics, state policy, and the legal framework — especially those parts introduced by General Zia.
As far as general opining is concerned, a broad-based consensus is all that is required to initiate an argument. There is no need for academic frills and fancies, and little need for rigorous statistical verification, especially in dealing with an attitudinal quality of society. However, this question, if tackled properly, would not only reflect societal behavior, it would also tell us where this behavior grows from and how it can, if needed, be curbed.
Conservative as a standalone quality reveals very little unless or until you attach it to a particular context and a particular form. Politically conservative and economically conservative could mean different things in different parts of the world. However, in Pakistan, and especially in the context of this particular question, conservative signifies an attitude towards religion largely concerning its practice, perpetuation in society, and its subscription as the primary marker of identity.
Secondly, the question and the generally accepted answer are primarily temporal statements. They rely on the fact that at some point in the past, Pakistan was at a different level of conservatism, and that, if you go by the consensus, this conservatism has been adequately measured and found to be less than where we stand today. This in particular is quite problematic given the fact that no such objective measure can be created and any judgment passed would rely on nuanced anecdotal evidence.
Thirdly, our conception of Pakistani society is largely limited to our own observational space. We sport not only an urban bias but also a class bias to a certain extent, since our interaction extends, at most, from the lower-middle classes to the upper class.
Given current discourse, a closer look at the situation will try to enhance our structural understanding of Islam in Pakistan.
Zia’s laws have been in place for a good 25 years now. The objectives resolution and Bhutto’s Islamic injunctions for even longer. Yet, the question of conservatism only gained currency over the last few years, primarily due to the proliferation of social and electronic media. People have become more aware of what others are thinking and it’s easier to find sources of information and discussion that mirror one’s own opinions or stand in complete opposition. So at one level, we judge Pakistani society to be more conservative because we can observe more of society these days than in the past.
Secondly, the proliferation of religious organisations has been ongoing for many years, yet now it seems they’ve had a greater impact on urban society. More and more people from the middle and upper classes are sympathising with and participating in movements like the Tableeghi-Jamaat and Al-Huda. This remains a definitive marker for the more conservative camp. The level of involvement in such revivalist movements has been immense, and by my own accounts, most of it is driven by a need to understand ‘true religion’ and to reject our culturally shaped beliefs and practices.
Thirdly, reaction by segments of the middle classes in the aftermath of both the Ahmadi mosque attacks and Salmaan Taseer’s assassination have revealed that people are unwilling to compromise on what they perceive to be religious truths. Refusal by the media and people in general to use the term ‘mosque’ and ‘shaheed’ in the case of the former, and the valourisation of Mumtaz Qadri in the latter are strong examples.
Fourthly, growing anti-Americanism, both against its cultural paradigm, as well as its perception as a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty and prosperity, is defined in terms of ‘our Islam’ vs the USA. Whereas previously, this anti-Americanism was largely confined to the Jamaat-e-Islami support base, it now finds itself amongst a larger section of society.
These and other factors on one side provide strong evidence for growing conservatism in Pakistani society. Out of those listed above, three are related to the public domain, while one is based on actual practice of religion.
In my next piece, we will look at parallel and causal developments, which reveal the roots of Islamism as Pakistani identity and the countervailing trends that temper it in urban society.

The writer works in the social sector and blogs at Write to him at [email protected]