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Editorial | Do Only Irresponsible Mullahs Enjoy Liberties In “Free” Pakistan?

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Amid alarm-bells over the rising curve of confirmed Coronavirus infections, the government appears to have reached a ‘compromise’ with leading religious figures on the opening of mosques and the full observance of devotional activities in the upcoming holy month.

It seems that the Prime Minister felt compelled to explain the federal government’s inability to enforce a lockdown – especially given that its ‘compromise’ with the ultra-religious lobby is anything but a midway agreement. It would be more accurate to describe it as the government’s capitulation: not before one party or sect, but before an entire worldview of suicidal rejection of established medical facts.

The PM’s justification for this ‘compromise’ is quite remarkable in its chutzpah. He seems to be saying that in a “free country” you cannot impose restrictions on people going to places of worship.

Many Pakistanis would beg to differ that it is considerations of “freedom” which drive policy in the PM’s Naya Pakistan since 2018. The disappeared political prisoners would beg to differ. Opposition leaders jailed in a vindictive ‘accountability’ process would likely join in. As would many journalists whose industry faces an extraordinary range of prohibitions, restrictions and censorship.

There are also those who point out that the PM’s own courting of hardline religious lobbies in his rise to power betray his true attitude towards religious freedom. And one need not go back even two years. Just days ago, on Easter, the PM tweeted out to Pakistan’s Christians, asking them to celebrate their holy day at home – when that community with all its denominations has already been fully cooperating in the lockdown, including the closure of services at churches across the country.

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And so, one wonders if this “freedom” invoked by the PM exists only for the hardline religious lobbies – with their propensity for violence, their sullen rejection of civic good sense and their obliviousness to clear Islamic ethical traditions around plagues/pandemics.

But the Coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented crisis and we cannot afford to dwell on the failures of Naya Pakistan to live up to the PM’s convenient new libertarianism.

Even more importantly: this pretense by the PM to be upholding “freedoms” suggests a highly irresponsible attitude on the part of the government – starkly highlighted by today’s urgent appeal by doctors for the authorities to revisit their stance. A “free country” has to be one that is free to design its public healthcare policy, free of blackmail by obscurantist and selfish lobbies.

It is made all the worse by the PM’s own statement that if the Coronavirus outbreak gets more difficult to contain, then the government would have to reconsider its policy on mosques remaining open. Does a “free” land make potentially destructive policies for a few weeks and then invoke its freedom to make a U-turn when there is a far bigger mess?

And it is not as if these religious authorities are unaware of the problem: the eminent Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman has stated that he would pray from home in the holy month. This came soon after he and other religious figures ‘negotiated’ an arrangement for keeping mosques open in the coming weeks.

Would that the Prime Minister had chosen a less crucial moment to pour salt on the wounds of our “free” Pakistan!

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