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Folly Of Defining Religion As A Political Interest

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Umer Farooq argues that if religion is defined as political interest, it is bound to become party to the conflicts and tussles that exist in any society.

Religion as a political interest could be a very divisive factor in public life—it could lead to deep-seated divisions in the society. Political and economic interests are inherently divisive factors in public life as groups, parties and factions have to struggle for attaining their political and economic rights in the process of distribution of resources in the society.

And if religion is defined as political interest, it is bound to become party to the conflicts and tussles that exist in any society. This is especially the case with preaching religions—preaching religions face a lot of embarrassment, if they are presented as political interest, as this comes into direct conflict with its role as model of ethical and moral behavior—a prerequisite for attracting new converts.

The revivalist thinker and founder of Jamat-e-Islami (JI) Maulana Maududi pointed this out in his serious ideological writings in the pre-partition British India—when he was opposing the secularist-nationalist leadership of Pakistan Movement, which was struggling for separate Muslim homeland in sub-continent. Maududi in fact pointed out that Islam’s interests as a preaching religion comes into direct conflict with Islam as a nationality—if it is defined with clear economic and political interests and requires the mindset of a competitor with a cutthroat bent of mind.

Islam’s role as preaching religion, on the other hand, requires ethical and moral behaviour on the part of those who are the business of presenting Islam as model for ethical and moral behavior in this world as well as in the afterlife.

The movement for the creation of Pakistan as envisaged by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah didn’t see or define Islam as a political interest—Quaid’s project was simply to rally the Muslims of diverse ethnic, racial, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds to come onto one plat form and struggle against the strong center that the British wanted to leave behind and Nehru wanted to inherit. The dominant historiography of independence movement of colonial period clearly see Jinnah as leading a movement for the socio-economic rights of the Muslims of sub-continent against strong central government that Nehru had envisaged for post-British India.

The particularistic tendencies of Muslim Majority provinces like Punjab and Bengal, who were opposed to Nehru’s vision of strong center, played no minor role in the creation of Pakistan.

Maududi and other Deobandi minded scholars and thinkers displayed exceptionally opportunistic tendencies in post-Independence Pakistan when they advocated narrow-minded exclusivity in dealing non-Muslims in Pakistan—non-Muslim, who were presumably the receivers of preaching campaigns and who were supposed to be the audience of good ethical and moral behavior that Islamists were supposed to display in a Muslim society, according to Maududi’s thinking contained in his pre-independence political writings.

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Maududi and his Jamat-e-Islami displayed the same narrow minded in deal with heterodoxical sects like Ahmadiya Muslims or religious minorities in post-independence Pakistan. They opposed the same narrow-mindedness in Secularist leaders of Pakistan movement, which they made the basis of opposing the secular nationalists of Pakistan movement. Maududi supported narrow minded statist project of separate electorate—with a clear intent of defining Islam as a political interest—violently campaigned for the definition of Islam and Muslims to be included in the constitution, that could be seen as another attempt to narrowly define Islam as a political and economic interests as opposed to presenting Islam as a model for ethical and moral behaviour in order to attract new converts.

The subsequent story of Pakistan nationalism and the narrowing perspective it entailed didn’t remain restricted to the realm of intellect. Maududi’s thinking and the thinking and acts of other Deobandi minded Ulema clearly brought the fight into streets of Pakistan.

Pakistani nationalism came to be predominantly defined in the context of Islam as a political interest. Fairness is a value greatly favored by classical Islamic thinking—this value faced massacre at the hands of religious-political lobby in Pakistan society, which firstly made the minorities the target of their violent campaigns and later targeted those Muslims who tended to disagree with their interpretation of Islam or disagreed with the notion that religion could become basis of public policy in Pakistani society.

Islam become a fixed intellectual, social and political reality with clearly defined political and economic interests—a reality which has to be defended violently even within Muslim society, advocated with force if need arise and promoted as a product—some of the new TV star preaching religion on private channels in fact described Islam as a product— just like a business interest.

Classical Islam in the Indian subcontinent—which is a synthesis of interaction between religious clergy, Muslim society and State authorities—did none of these or at least it didn’t promote any particular brand of religion on such a scale with the help of violence, except in few periods of history like that of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and few others.

Pakistani nationalism started to misinterpret history as well as narrowly define religion to achieve its ends—ends that helped promote violence within the society and facilitated violence in the inter-state relations outside the society in the regional environment.

In 1970s, Pakistani parliament passed a constitutional amendment that declared hetrodoxical sect of Ahmadiya as non-Muslims. This constitutional amendment was preceded and followed by a large-scale systematic violence against Ahmadiya community that could be described as a by-product of defining Islam as a political interest in the society. The project of defining Islam as a political interest, however, was not restricted to domestic politics.

In 1990s we developed Missile systems copied from North Korea and China named them after invaders of India like Ghauri and Ghaznavi and described the weapons in religious terms and as a symbol of defense of the country. Two misinterpretations could be pointed out here—first Ghauri and Ghaznavi hardly had anything to do with religion and secondly they never defended anything and third and most obnoxious mistake they are perceived as looters and plunderers of India by majority of Indians. This was another example of defining religions as a political interest that only vitiated our relations with India even further.

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Flaunting aggressive military weapons and declaring a hapless sect as non-Muslim could be described as the interest of the state or some of the groups and classes dominating the state structure. But it could hardly be described as the interests of a religion, whose status a world religion of assimilative tendency, is unmatched both from historical point of view and from perspective of modern world.  

Purely from the perspective of political science, political and economic interests are usually the forte of political groups, social or economic classes and state institutions. Religion (especially preaching religions) as an intellectual category or a social reality cannot afford to project economic and political interests of its own.  As this will amount to religion fielding itself into the world of cutthroat competition, which no preaching religion cannot afford to do.

Pakistani clergy has inherited a religious tradition, where its association with royal courts, governments and states as retainers of royalty, or state authorities and military commanders, have forced them to project their class or group interests as the interest of the religion. This has created very unfortunate results for Pakistani society. Revivalist movements have been particularly instrumental in projecting this class interest as interests of the religion. The result has been carnage of values and humans in the social and political history of Pakistan—both precious for a normal life in a normal society.

The other day I woke up to a beep on cell phone, indicating the arrival of a tweet, carrying photograph of a burned mosque. I thought that the zealots in some Punjabi town have again burned a mosque belonging to Ahmadiya community. I was mistaken as it turned out to be photograph of a mosque burned by Hindu extremists in New Delhi. But confusion was justified as their was no difference in the images—the same burned front gates, the same ruins and the scattering holy pieces of papers all around.

I realised that it’s the same story on the other side of the border—religion defined as political interests ruining the social life in Indian society—a society, which is fast losing sight of its lofty objectives of secular social and political life. Alas.


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Naya Daur