By Yasser Latif Hamdani
February 29, 2016
In the last two weeks, the Council of Islamic Ideology’s (CII) chief Maulana Sherani has declared that a woman cannot seek Khula from her husband without his permission. Jamia Binoria’s Mufti Naeem has called Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy a Fahash Aurat (immoral woman) on television. Maulana Fazl ur Rahman has re-emerged as the foremost champion of the country’s constitution and ideology. The Maulana has called the pro-women law passed by the Punjab Assembly as being against Islam and the constitution.
Despite their past failures at the polls, the politico-religious parties and their allies have managed to gradually tighten their grip around Pakistan’s neck. It is always the mainstream and ostensibly secular elite, both political and military, that has entertained their demands, right from Liaquat Ali Khan’s time. Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshall Ayub Khan, deployed the clergy against Fatima Jinnah by getting them to issue Fatwas against a woman being elected head of the state. General Yahya Khan, well known for his rambunctious lifestyle, had no qualms about co-opting Maulana Maududi and his Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), amongst the doughtiest opponents of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, for his ideology of the Pakistan project in wake of Bengali demands for autonomy. Next it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who — in his bid to be the Islamic Napoleon- unnecessarily fattened up both Maulana Maududi and Mufti Mahmood, Fazl ur Rahman’s father, by giving them a say in the Islamic provisions of the constitution in 1973.
The following year when Bhutto took the unprecedented step of conflating Pakistan’s National Assembly (NA) with the Islamic equivalent of Council of Nicaea in deciding that Ahmadis were Non-Muslim, he was joined in the act by the secular National Awami Party (NAP) led by Wali Khan. Contrary to the myth held on to by some on our left, the record shows that Wali Khan and his party wholeheartedly voted for the second amendment to the Constitution. In those days Mufti Mahmood was an ally of the secular NAP. In 1977, NAP, reborn as Awami National Party (ANP), joined the coalition called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) against Bhutto and raised the slogan of Nizam-e-Mustafa i.e. implementation of an Islamic system in Pakistan. For 11 years General Zia played on that slogan, mutilating the laws and the constitution of the country beyond recognition.
It was Nawaz Sharif’s government that refused to appeal the Federal Shariat Court’s decision on the death penalty under the blasphemy law. It was again Nawaz Sharif who tried to pass the notorious 15th Amendment to the Constitution which would have made the country an outright theocracy. General Musharraf, who many thought was going to be Pakistan’s Ataturk, retreated in the face of every challenge from clergymen, from their opposition to any reform of the blasphemy laws to their insistence on having the religion column on the passport. It was, however, the PPP government that presented the CII to Maulana Sherani and JUI-F on a platter, leading to the present craziness.
The clergy, say whatever you may about it, is actually ideologically committed to the goal of enforcing its own brand of Islam on the country. Unlike the ostensibly secular politicians, it is not power but ideology that concerns the clergy. It is happy to remain outside the halls of power, so long as the political and military elite do its bidding. The state gets nervous every time the clergy starts speaking of Islam. Obsessed with maintaining power status quo, the political and military elite will bend over backwards to ensure that clergy is kept mollified. This means passing bad laws and sacrificing the fundamental rights of ordinary citizens where necessary. This also means tolerating Maulana Abdul Aziz in Islamabad even if it means shutting down all communication systems in the capital city during Friday prayers for several weeks.
The problem is that such a state of affairs is unsustainable for a modern democratic state in this century. It is not simply a question of survival of the elites but a question of the survival of the country. If our religious divines are able to transform Pakistan into a medieval theocracy, the state will not last 24 hours, descending into bloodshed and chaos. Ghulam Abbas’ short story Hotel Mohenjo-Daro predicted the demise of the state at the hands of the clergy. It is the only possible end for a country so divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Nor will such dissolution of the state produce any viable successors. The whole country will become a jungle, a dystrophic nightmare for its citizens. The political and military elites, who are enablers of the clergy today, will be nowhere. The powerful military will be consumed by the conflict. In the end what would be left would be factions, some armed with weapons of mass destruction. Tens of millions will perish. Imagine Somalia, only 20 times bigger and with nuclear weapons
There are marginal baby steps to reverse the trend. Legislation by the Punjab Assembly to protect women is one such step. The ruling elites need to grow a backbone and learn to put their foot down when blackmailed in the name of religion. It is important to reclaim our narrative also. Pakistan was a Muslim modernist project with true ideological roots in the hallowed halls of Sir Syed’s Aligarh University.
It was not meant to be a theocracy to be run by priests with a divine mission. If there must be a CII, it must be populated by modernists, progressive Muslim scholars, enlightened jurists and renaissance men and women, not reactionary Mullahs who want to turn back the clock. Only then can we ensure that our future generations will live in a truly free and progressive state, and not some medieval dystopia which both our clergy and our many enemies outside want us to become.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.