Pakistan's top Catholic leader, Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore, says it is time for the "silent majority" to speak out against the growing influence of radical Islam, particularly among Pakistan's youth.
“We face a dark future, if the radicals take over power and impose their brand of the Islamic way of life,” the archbishop told CNA. “It is time for the 'silent majority' to wake up and take action. Otherwise, they will be pushed back into the dark shadows of medieval times.”
The archbishop offered his reflections while preparing for a national “Day of Prayer, Fasting and Penance” that took place on Jan. 30.
Pakistan's bishops sponsored the inter-religious event in hopes of bringing peace, unity, and progress to their country, which has been in turmoil since the the Jan. 4 assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. He was allegedly killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for opposing the “blasphemy law” used to silence Christian evangelism and critics of Islam.
In a troubling sign, some Islamic groups – including prominent youth movements – have hailed the assassin as a national hero. Archbishop Saldanha explained that many Pakistani Muslims were conditioned to take the side of anyone claiming to act in the defense of Islam.
“Anyone doing a deed for the Muslim cause is applauded,” he said. “This explains why Mumtaz Qadri was given a hero’s welcome.”
According to the archbishop, these attitudes can easily prevail in an environment of corruption, poverty, and lack of education. The madrassas – private religious schools imparting a strict vision of Islam – are multiplying. Even public schools often promote hostile attitudes toward non-Muslims, following the lead of many radical clerics.
“From these ranks, suicide bombers are recruited and trained,” Archbishop Saldanha explained. “Young boys from age 10 to 18 are prepared to die for Islam and attain glory in heaven. They join militant extremist organizations that promote jihad.”
Archbishop Saldahna said young people were “further radicalized” by some aspects of the U.S. “war against terrorism,” which has continued for almost a decade following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
He said the United States' continued used of drone fighter jets has “further aggravated the situation.” The strikes aim to combat terrorist cells in the country, but have come under international criticism for killing innocent civilians and destroying local infrastructure.
The controversial strikes have fueled animosity against Christians in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Some Pakistanis, outraged by the bombing campaigns, have come to view native Christians as enemies and traitors, due to the cultural association between Christianity and the United States.
Because radical Islamic influences also dominate the educational system, many average Pakistakis are unable to question this received worldview of religious hostility, which also finds an outlet in the press and other media.
The archbishop also expressed concern that more moderate voices are increasingly difficult to find in the mainstream Pakistani media. He pointed to the case of the scholars, Jawed Ahmad Ghamidi and Tahir-ul-Qadri, who have been forced out of the country for their supposedly “liberal views.”
“The problem,” Archbishop Saladhana said, “is that no scholar dares to oppose the Taliban view of Islam.”
However, Archbishop Saldanha believes these trends can be reversed, if the growing ranks of “quiet dissenters” can find their voice and use the media to their own advantage.
“Thanks to the Internet and Facebook, the minds of many youths are opened and they do not subscribe to the extremist philosophy,” he noted. “They would like to see Pakistan develop into a modern and progressive state.”
Shortly before Governor Taseer's murder, various professional associations, trade unions, political parties, and other concerned citizens had already formed a Karachi-based group called “Citizens for Democracy,” with goal of opposing religious extremism and violence. The bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace have joined with these groups in their campaign.
The movement aims to change the blasphemy law and return to the principles of Pakistan's 1973 constitution. Although the constitution established the country as an Islamic republic, it also provided for citizens' universal rights and the protection of religious minorities. It has only been in recent years, amid political instability, that these intentions gave way to openly discriminatory policies.
In Archbishop Saldanhda's territory of Lahore, a group of like-minded non-governmental organizations have also formed a “joint action committee” to promote religious and civil liberties and oppose the influence of radical Islamic ideology.
Despite some worrying trends, the archbishop believes many Pakistanis share this vision for their country. He indicated that these individuals and groups were beginning to awaken to the urgent situation, with the realization that they must advocate for peace and the common good at least as boldly as others seek to promote discord.
“The recent murder of Governor Salman Taseer is a wake up call for all enlightened and rational sections of society,” he stated. “They stand for social, legal and economic equality of all citizens of Pakistan, and are determined to oppose the 'Talibanization' of society.”