By Yasser Latif Hamdani
January 19, 2019
The government is planning a new mini-budget where it will impose new duties and taxes on smart phones (especially Apple products), leather goods, imported cars and the like. In doing so, Pakistan will no doubt fall foul of the WTO and this will turn out to be yet another hare-brained idea by our honourable Finance Minister. The duty on smart phones especially is a ridiculous idea considering that we need these products for a truly modern knowledge based society.
There is one product, however, that remains untaxed in Pakistan and otherwise unregulated. It is alcohol beverages. Despite the prohibition since 1978, many Pakistanis consume alcohol regularly. Bootleggers and smugglers make a killing but no revenue makes to the exchequer. Then, we come up with schemes of taxing smart phones instead.
What Pakistan has failed to understand over the last 41 years is that it is impossible to stop people from consuming a good altogether. Monarchies like the Gulf States for the most part have reconciled themselves with this fact and chosen to work around it. Islam considers alcohol a taboo because of its social externalities. Thus, instead of blanket prohibition, the emphasis should be on regulation through age limits and laws against drunk driving. What is the point of having prohibition laws when these end up only depriving the government of the right to tax and regulate? If the objective is to discourage alcoholism and the negative impact this has, the way to do that is to heavily tax it.
It is human nature to want something that is forcibly denied to them. For most young people, this is the real attraction of alcoholic beverages, and when they are unable to get it, they resort to hard drugs and narcotics. Instead of a blanket ban, the idea should be to allow alcoholic beverages with age limits, and to tax them heavily. On the one hand, you will take away the natural urge to flout the law, and on the other, the government will find itself considerably richer in tax revenue.
Pakistan became an Islamic Republic in 1956. Pakistan adopted Islam as the state religion in 1973. From 1947 to 1977, for 30 years, Pakistanis lived as Muslims despite the fact there was no prohibition in the country. Alcohol consumption was proportionally lower then, as compared to what it is today.
Meanwhile, tourists came to Pakistan and could be served alcohol openly. PIA served the finest liquors on board its aircraft. There was no rowdiness. If anything, the public in general was more devout, if less fanatical. Not many died by drinking cheap spirits and concoctions prepared secretly in some dump. These incidents started happening only after this sham prohibition was placed.
Hypocrisy eats up at the core of the moral fibre of society. This is what has happened in Pakistan. Banning alcoholic beverages forcibly, therefore, is counterproductive. There are better ways for the Islamic Republic to show its commitment to religion. For example, if Islam is the state religion of Pakistan, why have the mosques not been nationalised? The state ought to nationalize all mosques, madrasas, shrines and their properties. Every Imam of every Muslim sect should be a government official of BPS-18 trained by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in both Deen and Duniya. All donations to mosques, shrines and madrasas should be deposited in the government’s exchequer. There can be no occasion for private mosques and Islamic seminaries or shrines in a real Islamic Republic. King Henry VIII of England did this with the churches and monasteries 450 years ago and enriched his realm greatly. If Islam is the state religion in Pakistan, surely the state itself must own it and take responsibility for it. Not only will doing so curb social discord but it will also place at the disposal of the government great sources of revenue and land.
This will certainly pay better than taxing a handful of smart phones, while also getting the government in the driving seat when it comes to religious sentiment so often used against it by unthinking and anti-state elements. Every year in Ramazan we see a mosque in Peshawar making a mockery of Islam by declaring Eid a day earlier. In the Islamic Republic, there can only be one Eid. The state should have the right to declare it.
If the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is unwilling to nationalize mosques, shrines and madrasas, it should then do us all a favour and become constitutionally secular. Only that would justify the benign neglect with which the state treats the faith it claims to have adopted as its state religion. At least then the issue would become one of personal conscience and private business. If, however, it wants to insist on being an Islamic Republic, it should also safeguard the faith from being exploited in the manner it is. This is the real reason there should be an Islamic Republic in the first place and not to put up shams in the name of religion, such as the prohibition of alcohol, which do not work.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practicing lawyer and was a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA