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The Tyrannical Hold Of Religious Lobby Is Increasing By The Day

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There is no danger of Islam losing its dominance over public life in Pakistan. That religion plays an overwhelming role in a country created for Muslims isn’t a surprise. But the problem is that Pakistan ominously is turning into a religious tyranny.

Compelling adherence to religious activities despite health warnings is the very definition of religious tyranny. It doesn’t help Pakistan’s beleaguered government cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious leaders warned against restricting congregations in mosques. And vast numbers of people still gather for prayers during Ramadan. Some prominent clerics threatened the government that if followers think the mosques are being deserted on America’s instructions, they would give their lives to prevent it. A commonly held view is that prayers alone will protect Pakistanis as ‘God is with us’.

In a harebrained rant, a popular televangelist, in a telethon attended by Prime Minister Imran Khan, condemned women for dancing and dressing inappropriately. He said these “immodest actions” have brought God’s wrath in the form of COVID-19 upon the country. It’s no secret that Khan supports the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which have long been used to target and punish religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus.

Pakistan’s founder M. A. Jinnah ingeniously balanced the idea of political mobilization based on religion and his desire to see the new state as an Islamic democracy, not a theocracy. He played to the gallery knowing that he would have a place in history if he rescued the Muslim minority from the tyranny of the Hindu majority in a united India. Ironically, Jinnah had left the Indian Congress Party in protest against Gandhi’s support of the pan-Islamist Khilafat movement, a move that Jinnah considered an infusion of religion into Indian politics.

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The ambiguous idea of a moderate, liberal Islam free of puritanism, died with Jinnah. His successors dropped his secular pretensions and pressed ahead with the consolidation of an Islamic state. Political Islam was boosted by the passage of the Objectives Resolution 1949, the token role granted to religious clerics in the 1962 Constitution, and by the state securing the right to declare who was a Muslim through the 2nd amendment to the 1973 Constitution.

But it was an unpopular military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, who transformed Pakistan in the name of Islamic ideology. He promoted “Islamization” and injected public displays of Islamic piety into the national culture.

The tyranny imposed by the powerful Islamist lobby is part of everyday life in Pakistan. Islam is meant to offer hope and alleviate suffering. Instead, Islamists are actively engaged in the political sphere influencing policies and institutionalizing fanaticism. It helps that many Pakistanis feel that Islamic beliefs and doctrines should play a role in public life and state policy.

According to various Gallup polls, 67% of respondents said that Sharia should be the only law. 27% said that religion and politics shouldn’t be treated separately. 35% believed that if a person finds another to have committed blasphemy then he should take the law in his own hands.

To make matters worse, one-third of Pakistan’s population lives in grinding poverty. Many children from poor families end up in free-boarding madrassas, whose worldview is focused mostly on jihad and rejection of progressive values. Young minds aren’t exposed to reason and free thought, a prerequisite for success in the modern world. Estimates suggest that there are 35,000 madrassas in Pakistan today compared to 300 in 1947.

Importantly, politics, state, and society are under the overarching influence of the military establishment and Islamists. This unhealthy alliance has led to the rise of radicalism. The establishment uses the ability of Islamist organizations to mobilize people against recalcitrant politicians and find recruits for the decades-old jihad in Indian Kashmir.

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The late Egyptian playboy King Farouk had a point when he sarcastically remarked that it seemed that Islam and Pakistan were both born in 1947. He was commenting on the Pakistani leadership’s repeated references to Pakistan being the biggest Muslim country pledged to Islam.

Today, after years of zealous state construction, religion is embedded in the body politic. Pakistanis take great pride in saying that the meaning of Pakistan is – there is no God but Allah – the same words used while converting people to Islam. In the current atmosphere, a debate on the merits of a separation between religion and politics is a non-starter.

I believe that Pakistan sustained by a strategic mix of religion and politics couldn’t have turned out much differently — a bastion of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. The state supports religion and, in return, religion provides the state with legitimacy.

That said, Pakistan has good potential and is brimming with creativity and energy. Unfortunately, this must be tempered by the reality that more and more the country is weighed down by a religious tyranny, based on a totalitarian interpretations of Islam.

It is wishful thinking to expect a change in the foreseeable future.

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3 Comments

  1. Rashid Latif Ansari May 21, 2020

    I doubt whether Pakistan would have been different, had Jinnah lived a little longer. Replying a question about Pakistan’s constitution, he had himself told reporters that Pakistan’s constitution was already in Quran. That declaration had sealed the fate of Pakistan making his speech of 11th August 1947 of little significance. In the seven concluding lines of your article you have yourself summed it up beautifully that there is no hope that in Pakistan religion will loosen its grip in the foreseeable future. I was 17 when I migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and have seen how step by step it moved towards obscurantism even before Zia put the final proverbial nail in its coffin.

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  2. shafiz May 24, 2020

    Read your erudite analysis of the politics in Pakistan. I believe that the greatest harm is done by restricting education to a confined pattern. One should be taught to think but not what to think. The design of education – under the supervision of religion – has harmed all societies at all times in the course of history. It is figures like Martin Luther, Spinoza, and Erasmus who have questioned the supremacy of existing religious concepts at the time that brought enlightenment to the western societies.

    Islam has had no equivalent evolution. In fact the clergy has managed to retain a hold on the society by propagating that looking backward and denying new concepts was the duty that would bring rewards. The continued admiration of the past has stunted development at all levels. The damage is most glaringly visible in the lack of promotion of science in Islamic countries. Science does not compromise with the naked truth and teaches one to be flexible to new ideas at all levels, feeling no shame in discarding its existing premises upon access to new knowledge. My personal experience of the situation of science in several (Muslim) countries – Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan – left me sad.  Turkey seemed on the right track – but with the ideology of Erdogan, I have fear about the future.

    All religions when followed with a fanatic zeal only lead to darkness.  This is true today of the followers of Christianity (sects), Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It is a struggle in which science alone can claim the search for LIGHT.

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  3. Abraham May 26, 2020

    Is it hat bad? The Muslims from Pakistan I know are so different from the society you describe. What covid has done to the world is to raise the scientific temper of human kind. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Pakistan.
    Sad!
    All that said, Indonesia is beginning to do well. So, Islam may not be the problem.

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