Creeping religiosity

IT is not by accident that the dark forces of bigotry and obscurantism have become stronger than ever in Pakistan. The phenomenon is all too visibly rooted in the government’s acts of omission and commission.

The regularisation of madressahs and the reform of their curricula were given top priority in the National Action Plan of 2014. While that plan remains unimplemented due to the obduracy of the religious lobby, some school textbooks will not be published unless they are approved and cleared by a religious body. Where is the sanction for this extraordinary decision?

It sounds strange that even after 40 years of effort by Ziaul Haq and his successors to impose their version of Islam on the people, a law has to be enacted and executive orders issued to persuade young people to study the Quran Sharif. All Muslims try to study the Holy Book as best as their resources permit. If there are any hearts in which the fear of God should be planted, many of them are likely to be found among the rulers of Pakistan, such as ministers and law-enforcement personnel.

Islam is a totally voluntary religion. Where does the Punjab government get the idea about punishing students who fail to study the Quran? A Punjab act of 2018, providing for compulsory study of the Quran by students of all educational institutions in the province, is already in force. What was the need for the Punjab governor to issue a notification this month to the effect that those failing to study the Holy Book would not be awarded degrees? The ulema may well examine the question of whether the Punjab notification is in accord with the fundamental Islamic principle of la ikraha fid deen (there is no compulsion in religion)

Any demand or action can be put beyond discussion in Pakistan by wrapping it in a religious standard.

The most unfortunate reality is that any demand or action can be put beyond discussion in Pakistan by wrapping it in a religious standard.

Prof Arfana Mallah, one of the country’s most widely esteemed teachers and a champion of humanitarian causes, was harassed by religious zealots and threatened with murder to the extent that she was driven to offering regrets for an offence she had not committed. Can anything more offensive and humiliating to a sensitive person be imagined?

She was accused of pointing out flaws in a man-made law and not a divine revelation. Since when has any criticism of a provision in the Penal Code become an offence? The Federal Shariat Court, that made the death penalty mandatory for an offence under Section 295-C, had itself observed in its order that this section was not in accord with the Islamic principle of al-aamal-o-bin niyat (actions are judged by intent). The advocate who had petitioned the Shariat Court to declare the death penalty mandatory under Section 295-C, published a book, Qanun Touhin-i-Risalat, in which he stated: “In my opinion it is absolutely necessary to bring this Section 295-C in accord with the Quran and Sunnah by further amending it. Otherwise, if this section is retained in its present form, ‘vagueness’ and legal complications could cause problems.” The government cannot be unaware of all this and its silence over mob frenzy confirms its complicity. Or should we prosecute the late advocate Ismail Qureshi?

Many indications of the state’s surrender to the conservative religious lobby are available. For years, the government has not been able to satisfy the Financial Action Task Force about the measures it should take to prevent funding for terrorist organisations because of its soft corner for ‘good terrorists’.

Recently, three books, The First Muslim, After the Prophet [PBUH], and A Short History of Islam, were banned for containing material allegedly derogatory to the sahaba. But who determined this charge was correct and by what procedure?

The latest federal budget has reduced the size of funding for the Higher Education Commission, and the link between the neglect of universities and a boost to the madressah network has been known since the Zia days.

Recently, the government set up a peculiar commission on minorities whose composition and mandate were subject to the religious lobby’s approval and this body has been parked within the Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose main task is to keep religio-political leaders in line with government policies.

The government yielded to the religious lobby’s pressure in the matter of taraveeh prayers during Ramazan and they are claiming distinction in flouting restrictions on congregations and SOPs during the pandemic. If the poll that says 55 per cent of the people don’t take Covid-19 seriously is correct, a major contribution to this situation has been made by pseudo religious agitators.

The latest development in the drive to suppress rational voices that have long been targeted by exploiters of religion for narrow sociopolitical ends is curtailment of academic space for teachers who prefer rationalism to naked bigotry. There have been reports of the adverse revisions of contracts of a few teachers known for independent thinking. The motive may not be to punish them for their views but the result will be that the people in general will be deprived of the fruits of their intellect. Hardly anyone can believe that the purge of the independent-minded intellectuals is being orchestrated without a master conductor.

This could be obviously a warning to all academics of the new terms of survival. There is no doubt that a campaign to suppress alternative voices is now in full swing. It could lead to the establishment of a theocracy that cannot give the people anything except misery, as Dr Fazlur Rahman declared many years ago. His prediction that such a regime would have a short life is no consolation because much that is precious in Pakistan will have been lost. Does anyone have a right to cause all this misery to the people?

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2020

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