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Pakistan: Keeping Religion Out Of Public Life

By Rabia Ahmed

November 21, 2016

The first duty of a government is to maintain law and order so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State. – Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Most of our countrymen seem to feel that Islam, the religion followed by the majority of the people of Pakistan, ought to play an official role in the public arena although what Islam consists of appears to be somewhat disputed. Every sect possesses so many sub-sects, and every one of these sects is so at variance with the other upon issues of importance such as for example the question of inheritance. There is also the very important question of co-existence with other faiths, and the liberal, radical version of Islam differs a great deal on this point from other less liberal versions. In these latter versions an increasing number of people seem to consider it their religious duty to enforce not just religion but a particular version of it, making persons who subscribes to anything else persona non gratae.

A person who tries to remove religion from the official arena in Pakistan stands to be accused of trying to produce a ‘Godless society’, and for some reason since there has to be a scapegoat, a Godless ‘Western’ society. That argument could be countered by the question: is it expected that the policies of the new very right wing government in the US headed by Donald Trump will produce a ‘Godly’ society, or for that matter the policies of Narendra Modi’s government in India, since Modi like Trump belongs to a party with an extreme right wing ideology? Very few people will agree with that. So does it mean that Islam alone is fit to be an official State religion? Looking at Pakistan as we looked at Trump’s US and Modi’s India, can anyone say that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is an exemplary State, religiously speaking?

Meantime, of the list of political parties that consider themselves ‘religious’, yet another two were recently added to the list of banned ‘outfits’, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) an offshoot of Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) for their involvement in violent terrorism, which takes the list of these banned ‘outfits’ to sixty three. Most of the violence committed by these groups was committed on sectarian grounds. Not only does the ideology upon which these groups base themselves confirm that these crimes were perpetrated by them (the LeJ is a Sunni supremacist group, and the Jamaal-ul-Ahrar a Sunni Deobandi group, an offshoot of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan TTP), but they have themselves taken ‘credit’ for these acts.

The common factor between the persons and groups mentioned above is that they use religion and conservative values to appeal to the public. The graver the social confronting a society, the greater the chance that those who use religion to appeal to such people will obtain power. Donald Trump, although a Christian with a loose affiliation with Church himself, chose Pence as his vice president. Pence is a ‘onetime Catholic altar boy turned evangelical Protestant’ who, according to the Huffington Post ‘connects very well with Christian conservatives, especially the most pro-life of them. Donald Trump now has an effective surrogate he can dispatch to speak to those kinds of voters,’ and we have seen that this strategy has worked.

In just this way the poor uneducated persons of Pakistan are deluded into thinking that religion contains some magical mantras to alleviate their poverty, and clerics use this delusion, this opiate of the masses. Some of them increase their mystique by locating the moon twice a year, the rest by means of deliberations upon how long engagements should last before Nikah takes place, how hard you may hit your wife, and also by proposing bills that provide protection for men after doing their utmost to prevent the passage of bills that provide protection to women, in a society where men are the predators. No, there is little doubt that religion is a shortcut to power. We have seen this with Mard-e-Momin Mard-e-Haq Zia ul Haq, and more recently with Mian Nawaz Sharif’s abortive attempts to obtain the title of Ameer-ul-Momineen so that he could take important decisions without consultation. Luckily for us this last attempt was vanquished, at least this time, although anything couched in Arabic is viewed as religious and becomes inviolate which argues the point for me.

To prevent such misuse, and not because of any hostility towards it religion should be permitted in the public arena of a State only to the extent that it allows that quote by Jinnah (above) to become fact. At least until by some unknown means individuals and groups in this country learn to appreciate a more rational form of religion, and to live with each other.

For now that goal appears to be distant. According to an AFP report quoting the State Bank of Pakistan, the ‘War on Terror’ has cost Pakistan $118 billion dollars and there are many persons in custody charged with blasphemy and the prospect of losing their lives. This is not the Pakistan envisioned by Jinnah, by our forefathers or by any person who holds life sacred.