How The Islamabad Bar Association's Interference In Personal Faith Makes Everyone Unsafe

How The Islamabad Bar Association's Interference In Personal Faith Makes Everyone Unsafe
The Islamabad Bar Association has demanded that lawyers who are its members must submit an affidavit about their faith by the end of this month. If they fail to do so, they will have their membership suspended and their names posted on a noticeboard. It is a bloodcurdling development insofar as it shows the general direction that Pakistani society is taking – and the helplessness of the state to offer any counter-narrative.

We are still waiting for an explanation on why the Bar Association considers a declaration of personal faith to be so vital for a lawyer in the discharge of their professional duties. But one dare not ask too loudly or insistently. After all, a failure to understand what motivates the religious fundamentalist lobby is but a short step away from failure to agree with them. And that is an even shorter step away from being murdered by just about any disturbed young man seeking the title of “ghazi” in a world where enemies of the faith have to be found in your neighbourhood rather than at the frontiers of sultanates and caliphates.

But lest we be collectively accused by history of having lived in an era when we allowed this terrifying phenomenon to prevail without even a whimper of disagreement, let us lay out the problem.

For the record, here is why civilized and decent Pakistanis should oppose such moves by the Islamabad Bar Association or any other body.

Number one: if any service to the faith is done by demanding to know a citizen's personal beliefs, that is already taken care of. When they apply for a passport, every Pakistani citizen has to provide not just their religious affiliation but also their view on specific theological questions within Islam. What use is it to repeat this process at every forum?

Number two: the Bar Association's imposition has the effect of endangering everyone except those in the majority community. Obviously, the goal of the Bar Association is to reveal members of one particular minority sect, but it is a two-stage process. There are perils at each bridge. Consider the process here: first you profess to be either a Muslim or some other religion. If you “pass” this stage, and claim to be Muslim, you are then called upon to affirm your belief on a specific theological point in very specific wording. At every stage you risk jeopardizing your safety.

In a country where confessional minorities – both Muslim and non-Muslim alike – have been targeted by brutal armed groups, this whole process has the clear and cruel motive of forcing individuals to conform to the majority sect of the majority faith. As for those who can not or will not do so, they must simply put themselves at the mercy of the majority community and the rights that it “gives” them in its generosity of spirit. The prospective non-Muslim lawyer at the Islamabad Bar Association, therefore, is called upon to publicly place their life in the hands of a forum which also hosts zealous crusaders trying to defend the true faith against all perceived thought crimes.

There is an argument from supporters of such policies that religious faith plays a vital role in our lives and so there should be no harm or shame in being asked to publicly declare it. That is the demand of a ravenous pack of wolves from a flock of sheep trying to hide in plain sight. There is little in Pakistan's recent history to reassure religious minorities that they would be safe if they made their personal beliefs public.

In fact, every one of the thousands of Pakistanis massacred by religious fundamentalists is an argument against the steps being taken by the Islamabad Bar Association.

Number three: even if the Bar Association can ensure that this whole procedure impacts only the one specific religious minority that it wants to hit, it is unnecessary and cruel to treat that community in such a manner. This is being written in light of point number one (mentioned above) and in the full knowledge that the religious fundamentalist lobby can weaponize not just the faith but also the Pakistani Constitution to strengthen its terrifying case.

Nor will the majority sect of the majority community be spared the impact of such a process. Let us call the Bar Association's measures what they are: an Inquisition, no different from the worst moments of the infamous medieval Catholic institution. If this is normalized so easily in Pakistani society, it will spare nobody. Eventually, the faith of everyone will become suspect unless it conforms to the views of a particular group. There are fierce divides within the Barelvi tradition and within the Deobandi tradition. These divides will not go away once religious minorities have been forced underground or worse.

In centuries of Muslim experience, every episode of sectarian hysteria and religion-based purges has come back to prey upon those who thought they were safe from it. The monstrous process which today threatens minorities will, if allowed to proceed unchecked, soon turn "inwards" and target the majority community itself. This can only end in a theocracy run by one or the other tightly-controlled group within Sunni Muslims – which will be just as violent and exclusionary towards other Sunni Muslims with even minor differences.

The writing is on the wall. But it seems unlikely that anything can be done to persuade the Bar Association to stop. And little can be done to prevent any other institution or organization from following suit, especially when there is no dearth of precedents. Even the arguments made in this article are enough to land anyone in hot water if mentioned in the presence of the religious fundamentalist lobby which drives such initiatives.

In such a time, it is ever more important to salute members of the lawyers' fraternity who are standing against this terror. Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokar of the PPP has already taken the lead. His principled stance against this mass intimidation is as follows: that as a member of the Islamabad Bar Association, he will lose his membership at the end of this month rather than play along with such an imposition. He invokes the principles laid out by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his speech of the 11th of August 1947.

This time that we are living in will be remembered for those who stood against the avalanche, not for the many who contributed to it. No words of gratitude are enough for the Senator in this moment.

The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.