By Qanta Ahmed
April 30, 2016
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent exposure in the Mossack Fonseca Scandal comes as no surprise to those familiar with Pakistan’s perennial opportunities for corruption amongst her ruling classes. While enraging much of the nation, the surfacing of these ugly realities has inspired its Islamist clergy.
Painting themselves even more ‘holier than thou’, Pakistan’s religious clerics are uniting in extraordinary consensus. Seizing on Sharif’s suddenly weakened position, they gather to oppose the Anti-Honour Killing amendment bill, the Anti-Rape amendment bill and the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act presented in Pakistan’s joint parliamentary session last month. Apparently laws containing ‘remedies for victims of violence’, criminalising ‘all forms of violence against women’ and building shelters for the protection of women and girls are anathema to the clerics’ Islam. Instead, they attack these ‘controversial bills’ as un-Islamic and profanely ‘secular’ even though such bills are indubitably aligned with Islam’s ideals.
As an observant Muslim, the only ‘controversy’ I see in these bills is that it took Pakistan 68 years to enact such laws. If Pakistan’s democracy is to be guided by Islam, then does the Holy Quran not teach us to protect our women and girls from all possible forms of violence? Does it not tell us to punish those that inflict such violence? Are we not meant to abandon the traditions of Jahiliyat (pre-Islamic Arabia), where such tribal punishments like honour killings were practised?
I can’t help thinking of my female Saudi physician colleague Dr Maha Al-Muneef who, under the patronage of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, built shelters, hotlines and response mechanisms for Saudi women and children subject to domestic violence. Pakistan’s clerics seem to strive to be less compassionate than even the harshest expressions of Sharia. Opposing these bills corrodes the spirit of Islam. If the clerics succeed, denying women these legislative protections will ensure the on-going deaths of countless vulnerable women and girls.
Just as Islam is ensnared in the web of Pakistan’s Islamists, Pakistan’s financial corruption is equally entrenched amongst the nation’s powerbrokers. Less than a third of sitting parliamentarians file taxes confirming “tax evasion at the highest levels of society”. The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives and the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan revealed only 126 of Pakistan’s 446 federal legislators filed income tax returns in 2011. Among the evaders was the Sharif’s equally ignominious predecessor, former President Asif Ali Zardari.
With tax evasion practically a social norm, international donors habitually rescuing Pakistan from financial demise are all too aware of the nation’s abominable record: a mere two per cent of Pakistani citizens are even registered to pay tax, with only a quarter of these abiding. Of course tax evasion is found most prevalent among Pakistan’s wealthy elite –namely Sharif’s ‘base’.
Worse, regionally, Pakistan stands out in its ineptitude.
Pakistan does worse in tax collection than even its developing world peers: at a tax-to-GDP ratio of 11.5% Pakistan’s tax collection ‘is among the lowest in the world’
Just like women and girls bearing the brunt of Pakistan’s Islamist clergy, Pakistan’s under-privileged share the heaviest burden of the nation’s taxation. The poor are forced to pay tax for basic utilities and other indirect taxes on goods including food, while Pakistan’s landed gentry are fully exempt from taxation. Astonishingly, Pakistan does not tax the agricultural industry! Such medieval injustices entrench Pakistan’s feudal lords at the top of Pakistan’s agrarian economy, guaranteeing wealth disparity remains ever widening.
Welcome to Pakistan: a democracy abducted. A democracy abducted by democrats who hoard (and flaunt) their wealth. A democracy abducted by the Islamists’ hybridisation of a manmade merciless ‘Sharia’ onto the organs of a hollow democracy.
How did Jinnah’s vision come to this?
Through wholesale civil law fare and through abuse of the law for personal strategic and political gains. Religious intolerance – the kind that opposes legislative advances to protect women from violence – de facto defines Pakistani identity today, and this religious intolerance is codified into law. Both Pakistan’s lawmakers and clergy are responsible. In Pakistan’s legislature today, a judiciary acquits gang-rapists to uphold misogyny, admits testimony which bears false witness against the vulnerable and passes laws which incite state-sanctioned religious persecution of both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. A culture of impunity has taken deeply to root.
Today’s clerics are united not only in their impenetrable ignorance but in stalling genuine efforts at historic legislative advances.
It is Islamism that makes war with the secular, not Islam which embraces profoundly secular values: freedom of human will, freedom of belief, the foundations of Divinely Authored pluralistic world and the unshakeable tenet that Islam is nothing if not justice manifest. Objecting to the anti-violence against women bills are the hallmarks of the imposters of Islam, not Islam’s true stewards.
Certainly the Panama Papers have shed light on all kinds of unpleasantness. Whether bankrolls of money, portfolios of Park Lane property or an assembly of darkness consolidating deep within the barracks of Pakistan’s Islamist clerics. Pakistan with its magnificent people, noble origins and extraordinary bounty aside – is fully revealed as a deeply diseased society.
Today Pakistan has awakened not only the fragility of its most vulnerable at stake, but to the discovery that its democracy was abducted long ago.
Qanta Ahmed is a British Muslim who is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom' and a physician.)