The bigoted brigade
Saturday, June 19, 2010
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
The outrage expressed by our mullah brigade over Nawaz Sharif's supporting words for Ahmedis after a terrorist attack that claimed the precious lives of over 80 Pakistanis belonging to this minority community establishes beyond doubt that this lot lacks compassion, is morally depraved and yet audacious about preaching and practicing bigotry. The mullah reaction to Nawaz Sharif's statement calling Ahmedis our brothers and sisters and an asset for Pakistan provides support to the urgent need for actively working toward rendering these self-proclaimed guardians of religious and moral values irrelevant in our polity. What kind of human beings cannot find it in their heart to express support and sympathy for families of innocent fellow citizens who have lost their lives in a place of worship?
As Ahmedis have been declared to be a minority sect, does the preamble of our Constitution not state that, "adequate provisions shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities"? Does Article 2A not mandate that, "adequate provisions shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures"? Does Article 20 not furnish the guarantee that, "each citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion"? And does Article 25 not document the foundational principle that forms the basis of the contract between the citizen and the state when it reiterates that, "all citizens are equal, before law and are entitled to equal protection of law"?
How many incidents of terror against Ahmedis and subsequent exhibition of abject callousness by self-proclaimed guardians of faith will it take for us to acknowledge that we are rubbishing our Constitutional guarantee of equality amongst citizens? How many cases of violence and arson targeting Christian households will it take for us to realize that we have become a society where even the right to life of those professing a faith other than Islam remains at the mercy of angry mobs? How many false blasphemy charges and asylum petitions in foreign countries will make us realize that we have institutionalized religious persecution in Pakistan?
And yet knowing fully well that our blasphemy law is prone to abuse, no government or political party is willing to cause amends out of fear of instigating our mouth-frothing mullah brigade. If Mr Sharif, as head of the largest mainstream center-right party, cannot sympathize with a minority community without attracting the wrath of the mullah brigade as well as allegations of apostasy, what does "the right to profess, practice and propagate" one's religion mean even for ordinary Muslims in Pakistan?
It is about time we engage in a candid debate about the desirable role of religion in the state and the society. What does Article 2 of the Constitution mean when it states that, "Islam shall be the state religion of Pakistan"? This article needs to be read together with Article 2A, which states that, "Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah." Article 31 further requires the state to "provide facilities whereby [Muslims of Pakistan] may be enabled to understand the meaning of life according to the Holy Quran and Sunnah." And then Article 227 mandates that, "all existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah, and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such injunctions".
Notwithstanding the arguments against Article 2 and the desirability of being a Muslim state as opposed to an Islamic state, the Constitution in its existing form only endorses a 'minimalist' approach to religion. One, it unequivocally provides that non-Muslims are equal citizens with all attendant rights and liberties. And two, even its Islamic provisions require that (i) laws in conflict with Islamic injunctions be struck down, and (ii) Muslims be 'enabled' to live their lives in accordance with Islamic teachings. If the Constitution were to take a maximalist view of Islamizing the state and society, it would have mandated that 'Muslims shall live their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam.'
Thus, despite documenting the primacy of Islam as the majority religion, the state's role under the Constitution remains that of a facilitator i.e. of making provisions to enable people to practice Islam in their individual lives if they so wish, without authorizing the state to enforce religion. Unfortunately, when it comes to non-Muslim citizens, the constitutional promise of equality has been turned into a farce, and when it comes to Muslims, the distinction between facilitating religion and enforcing religion has been lost on us. Together, this makes us an intolerant society wherein obscurantist views and practices thrive. But the cure for bigotry and intolerance doesn't lie in adding or deleting various texts from the Constitution and laws of Pakistan. Such amendments will need to be the consequence of social renaissance and change, and not its cause.
And such social change cannot be instilled without reconsidering our approach to religion, person liberties of citizens and the composition of the mullah brigade that has annexed to itself the right to speak in the name of God and shove their wishes and whims down other people's throats. Our society has reconciled with an approach to religion that is coercive and embraced a class of preachers that is uneducated, economically vulnerable and socially backward. For example, as primary school students, we had a Quran tutor who sold candies on the side for subsistence. Tired of his work as a street hawker between prayers, he would regularly dose off while we read the Quran. He brought along a 'hunter' (a wire contraption for disciplining purposes) that he would occasionally use.
Even at a young age one had a sense that he commanded no respect socially and could certainly not be mistaken as a role model when it came to moral or ethical values. During secondary and high school the Islamic studies teacher was better. But even his approach to inspiring students to abide by religious edicts was based in instilling in each one of us the fear of hell. The experience during the Friday congregation is no different. Even if one doesn't dread an imminent terrorist attack, the pain of sitting through a sermon comprising the prayer leaders self-righteous political thoughts and pristine worldview is excruciating. Notwithstanding Ziaul Haq'a antics and introduction of Islamic Studies at all levels, the nature of formal religious instruction one gets in school and college can hardly be called education. And this is the state of our premier educational institutions. The excessive entanglement of young madrassa students with terrorism and violence only highlights the kind of monstrosities most of our madrassas have become.
As a society, we have allowed the understanding and propagation of God's divine message to be relegated to a mullah brigade that constitutes the more uninformed, unenlightened and regressive section of our society. As a state, we refuse to afford protection to anyone professing and practicing religion in a manner that challenges the views held by this blighted mullah brigade. As a consequence, the ability of the mullah to define the contours of religious debate and his hegemony over the meaning and purpose of God's message has become firmly entrenched. This will need to be changed urgently if we wish to cure the afflictions of religious coercion, intolerance and violence that haunt us on a daily basis. The policy of not confronting the mullah, his proclaimed monopoly over matters of religion, and his retrograde worldview is simply not viable any longer if we wish to become a society that values and protects human life and liberty.