By Yasser Latif Hamdani
The founder of this country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in unequivocal terms, stated in February 1948: “In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.” This was a consistent position he had taken before and after the partition on at least 30 occasions, contrary to those who claim that he spoke of an inclusive, modern and democratic Pakistan only on 11th August 1947. Was this a secular or an Islamic vision has always been subject to much debate. What is clear however is that Jinnah envisaged a state where whatever laws were to be made, whether religious or secular, were to be debated and enacted by modern men and women and not medieval clerics with, as he put it, a “divine mission.” Throughout his career as a legislator Jinnah had always overruled orthodox religious opinion, be it in his advocacy for civil marriage between people of different religions or prohibition on child marriage.
While there remained an ambiguity of the role of religion in state, Pakistan till about 1973 did manage to keep sectarian clerics and their agenda out of constitution and law making. While the 1956 and 1962 Constitutions were not strictly secular constitutions, they did not empower clergy to ride roughshod over the destiny of the people of Pakistan. Tragically, it was another modern man, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who legitimised the role of clergy in the constitution. He did so by seeking the approval of Maulana Mufti Mahmood and Maulana Abul Ala Maududi while framing the 1973 Constitution. It was this constitution that introduced a state religion and reserved the office of prime minister exclusively for Muslims.
Consequently, it became a norm in Pakistani politics to seek approval from religious organisations, even when the people had repeatedly rejected them at the polls. How and why unelected clerics have managed to dictate public policy in Pakistan is a study in pusillanimous attitude of our ruling elites. What is this fear that paralyses not just our civilian politicians but even military rulers in uniform? General Pervez Musharraf who once promised to be Pakistan’s Kemal Ataturk took a U-turn on almost every promise that he made. President Asif Ali Zardari of the supposedly liberal Pakistan People’s Party meanwhile delivered the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to the sectarian clerics of all hue. In exchange for continued support by Maulana Fazl ur Rahman, the CII was handed over to Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani. The present government has not touched the CII for fear of upsetting the political applecart. With the Panama leaks now hanging over its head, the present government is relying on Maulana Fazl ur Rahman to save it. Expect Maulana Sherani to continue as the head of the CII for a very long time.
In recent years the CII has become an embodiment of everything that is wrong with our society and its attitudes towards religion. A few months ago, the CII wanted to debate whether Ahmadis were non-Muslims or apostates, meaning whether they deserved to live or to be killed at will. Earlier, the CII objected on religious grounds to the minimum age of marriage for women set by a law that was supported by and passed through the efforts of Jinnah himself. Then they objected to the law passed by the Punjab assembly that sought to protect women against domestic violence.
Now the CII have come up with a bill of their own, which would allow men to beat their wives “lightly.” Lightly in this case would mean a beating that does not lead to a fracture. In other words women may be beaten to a pulp so long as no bone is broken. Other provisions of this ‘model law’ are that female nurses should not be allowed to attend to male patients. Advertisements of formula milk should not be aired on television. Co-education, the CII say, should be banned after primary school. Advertisements should not have women in them. The irony is that even some educated people support such backwardness. Support for such idiocy is all around us. Why can’t there be male nurses, they ask? Why should women be used to sell products? These people want to turn Pakistan into a medieval and backward society where priests with a divine mission rule the roost.
Constitutionally, the CII should have been disbanded long ago when it completed its final report. Subsequently, it was to be taken as granted that whatever the elected parliament of Pakistan enacts would be considered the general will of the people and therefore Islamic. As is, CII’s function is said to be only advisory. However when Marvi Memon tried to present reasonable and rational legislation setting minimum marriage age at 18, she was forced to withdraw her bill under pressure of the CII. This is not an ‘advisory role’ by any means. It hampers progress and perpetuates religious tyranny of a few sectarian clerics.
If there must be a CII its members ought not to be from religio-political parties. They also should not be extracted from sectarian clerics. Instead the CII should be filled up with non-sectarian modern Muslim men and women of vision, schooled both in modern knowledge, law, science and Islamic jurisprudence. There should also be representation on the CII of non-Muslims so that they can safeguard their own rights against majoritarian tyranny. Only then can we ensure that the CII does not become a backdoor entry for priests with a divine mission out to undermine the general will of the people of Pakistan. Who will bell the cat though is question I do not have an answer to.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality