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 Ramazan. 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.
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 side of Kashmir.
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.
- The writer is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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